If playoff hockey is the best hockey, overtime in playoff hockey is somehow better than the best. The back-and-forth frenetic pace of hockey combined with the threat of a goal ending the action at any moment keeps fans in both ecstacy and agony.
Or, as Jon Bois put it, “why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter?”
There’s nothing quite like overtime playoff hockey. Really, one of the few problems of playoff overtime is that there sometimes isn’t enough of it. Ray Rotto complained after overtime in Game 6 of the series between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche lasted just two-and-a-half minutes.
I mean, the result was perfectly acceptable because it means the Sharks and Avalanche play a seventh game Wednesday night, and seventh games with an overtime chaser are among the most important advancements in human society since the Renaissance. Even then, though, overtime games are not meant to end while the ice is still smooth. They are meant to last past midnight.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs have long been lauded by neutral observers as superior to the NBA Playoffs largely on the gift that is sudden-death overtime. The theory breaks down some when you get only a couple of minutes before death.
It’s true: long overtimes are better than short overtimes. A long overtime allows the tension to build until you’re practically begging for someone to end the game before you grind your teeth into dust and your heart explodes like a can of Pam.
Unfortunately, far too many overtimes are over far too quickly. All that potential tension washed away for one ecstatic moment.
Hockey Reference has records of overtime playoff goals dating back to 1927, including how long into overtime those goals were scored. That lets us graph out those goals and see how long overtimes tend to last.
Let’s start by looking at overtime goals by minute:
The average length of overtime in NHL history is 13:02. Restricting it to just the modern era, which officially began in the 1943-44 season with the introduction of the red line, that bumps down to 12:13, which isn’t much different.
As you can see from the graph, a lot of overtime games end very early, with the third minute being the most common. That makes a certain amount of intuitive sense — that provides enough time off the opening faceoff to control possession and set up a great scoring chance — but it’s funny to see that number take a dive in the fourth minute. It takes another dive in the eighth minute.
We see a small bump up in the 22nd minute — two minutes into the second overtime period — and another bump in the 42 and 45th minutes. It looks like teams have a little burst of energy after the overtime intermissions.
The majority of overtimes — 499 of 871 — end within the first ten minutes. Again, that makes intuitive sense.
Let’s say there are six goals per game during the regular season, which is pretty close to the average throughout NHL history. We might expect those goals to be distributed fairly evenly throughout the game on average: that suggests two goals per period and one goal every ten minutes.
From that very basic (possibly too simplistic) assumption, we shouldn’t be surprised that most overtimes are over within the first ten minutes.
We can see that a little more clearly when we group the games into five minute intervals:
We again see that small bump up from 40 to 45 minutes, suggesting a little burst of energy after the second intermission. Except there’s also a bump from 50 to 55 minutes. Hm.
We can also look at the data by game:
On average, the shortest overtimes come in Game 3. Perhaps the explanation for that could be that teams down 2-0 in the series are a little more aggressive in overtime, allowing for more goals to be scored early?
Meanwhile, the longest overtimes come in Games 6 and 7, slightly longer than Game 1, with Game 7 the longest. That makes some sense, as those are elimination games by definition, so teams may play a little more cautiously, not wanting to give up the series-ending goal.
I think we can all agree that 0-5 minutes of overtime hockey isn’t enough. I asked on Twitter what the ideal length for an overtime should be. Even though I loaded the poll with the temptingly labeled “All dang night” option, a surprising number of people replied 10-20 minutes.
What's the ideal length of an overtime playoff game?— Pass it to Botchford (@passittobulis) May 10, 2019
Perhaps there’s an answer here: the average length of an overtime of around 12 minutes is a good amount of time. That’s enough time for some tension to build up, but not too long to cause an undue amount of anxiety.
If it’s not going to last around 12 minutes, however, an overtime should last as long as it can, all night if possible.
That leads us to those few outliers to the right of the chart: the longest overtime games in NHL history. Let’s go back into that history for a moment.
The first overtime goal in NHL history came in 1927, when Howie Morenz sent the Montreal Canadiens past the Montreal Maroons in the quarterfinals with a goal in the 13th minute of overtime. At that time, series prior to the Stanley Cup Finals were decided on aggregate — total goals scored over two games — and only went to overtime if the series was tied on total goals after two games. Games in the Stanley Cup Final went to overtime if they were tied, but could end in a tie after one overtime period.
The first game to go to double overtime was in 1929. A quarterfinal series between the New York Rangers and New York Americans was tied 0-0 after two games and it took until 9:50 into the second overtime for Butch Keeling to send the Rangers into the second round.
The two longest overtimes in NHL history both came before the start of the modern era in 1943-44. The longest was in 1936, when a semifinal game between the Maroons and the Detroit Red Wings went into the sixth overtime period. Mud Bruneteau scored 116:30 into overtime. It was the only goal of the game. Imagine watching 176 minutes of hockey with no scoring. Maybe there’s such a thing as too much overtime.
Likewise, the second-longest overtime in NHL history was scoreless until the sixth overtime. It was in 1933, with Ken Doraty scoring 104:46 into overtime to take the Leafs past the Bruins in the deciding game of their semifinal series.
The longest overtime in the modern era came in 2000 in a series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins and was a classic. The game went into the fifth overtime period, finally ending 92:01 into overtime on a goal from Keith Primeau. That’s a full 152 minutes of hockey, two-and-a-half games. It lasted over seven hours.
I liked this Primeau quote from the oral history of that game:
Usually on the road the team orders pizza for the locker room. There's pizza for the guys, power gels, power bars, they were really popular. The trunk of those was gone, the pizza was gone. Trainers are going up to concession stands to see if there's anything there. [The] coaches' popcorn was eaten.
Just that bit at the end: they were so desperate, they ate the coaches’ popcorn. How stale was that popcorn after that many hours?
The Canucks were involved in one of the longest overtime games and it led to the name “Pass it to Bulis.” Longtime Bulies will be familiar with the story, it it stems from the sixth-longest overtime game in NHL history.
It was 2006-07 and Roberto Luongo led the Canucks back to the playoffs in his first season in Vancouver. Their first round was a goaltender’s duel between Luongo and Marty Turco of the Dallas Stars, who posted three shutouts in that series, but still lost in seven games. The first game of the series, however, wasn’t a goaltender’s duel at all. At least, not in regulation.
The Canucks and Stars battled back and forth through the first 60 minutes, with the score knotted 4-4 at the end of the third period. That’s when Luongo and Turco both shut the door. Overtime lasted a whopping 78 minutes and 6 seconds. That’s nearly four full periods of hockey. In a sense, Turco actually posted four shutouts in that series, keeping the Canucks off the board for three-straight overtime periods.
Prior to the start of overtime, my friends, with whom I was watching the game, picked which player they expected would score the game-winning goal: players like Markus Naslund, Daniel Sedin, Trevor Linden, or Mattias Ohlund. Reasoning that playoff heroes can be the most unlikely of players, I picked Jan Bulis.
“Pass it to Bulis,” joked one of my friends when Bulis was on the ice during the first overtime period. As the game wore on, however, the idea that Bulis would score the winner felt less and less outlandish. In fact, we became convinced that only Bulis could end the game.
“Pass it to Bulis,” we started saying whenever he stepped on the ice in the second overtime period. “Pass it to Bulis!” we started to shout when he wasn’t even on the ice in the third overtime period. “Won’t somebody please pass it to Bulis?” we whimpered as the game went well past midnight in the fourth overtime period.
Then Henrik Sedin scored instead. Though Bulis did miss the net a few minutes before Henrik’s memorable game-winner. Maybe if he hits the net there, he scores, changing Canucks history in the process.
That’s the thing: long overtimes are memorable. They turn ordinary playoff games into all-time classics. They create legendary moments.
So, either end it after 10 minutes in the first period or drag that overtime out as long as possible. Create some memories.