Can Hockey End in a Tie? Is There Shootouts in NHL Playoffs?

Posted on May 17, 2024 by Dan Kent
hockey refs

What's the most exciting play in hockey? Most fans will tell you it's one-on-one with a lone skater facing the goaltender on a breakaway or penalty shot, with three-on-three overtime being a close runner-up. 

Thanks to ice hockey's current rules regarding tie games, fans can now witness more penalty shots and overtime sessions than ever before.

But, many people new to the game wonder if an NHL game can end in a tie. We'll go over that and a lot more in this article.

Can NHL games end in a tie?

Hockey games can no longer end in a tie. They haven't been able to for nearly two decades. Swapping in the 2005-06 season, the NHL and now most other pro hockey leagues use an overtime and penalty shootout system to determine the winner between two teams. 

In the NHL, a five-minute overtime period of three players per team is used to settle the score in case of a tie after 60 minutes of regulation time. If nobody scores during overtime the game is then decided by a penalty shootout. Shootouts are the least desirable way to win a game, as they won't be counted as wins in the event of a tiebreaker for the playoffs.

When did the NHL stop ending games with a tie?

The NHL last had ties in the 2003-04 NHL season. Then, after a year-long NHL lockout that resulted in no 2004-05 season, they swapped to a 5-minute overtime format. If no one had scored at the end of that first overtime period, they would finish the game with a shootout.

Why tie games were eliminated

There have been several eras in the NHL since the league's inceptions, with some being low-scoring and others being high-scoring. In the 1990s and late 2000s, many low-scoring, defensive-style games ended in ties. It was so bad they called this period the dead puck era.

This was quite a contrast to the 1980s, in which a more offensive and high-scoring brand of hockey was being played. With the average goals-per-game declining in the early 2000's the league felt it was time to eliminate ties since the games were deemed tedious by some factions of the public.

Ties were primarily eliminated to stop defensive play

It was believed most teams were happy to settle for a single point in the late stages of a tie game rather than lose the contest and get zero points. 

This resulted in a lack of offence. The NHL decided teams would stop playing defensive hockey in tie games if the losing team was guaranteed a point in the standings, even when losing in overtime games or a shootout.

Can a hockey game end with no score?

Technically, hockey cannot end with no score. If there is no score during regular time or overtime, the winning team of the shootout would be credited one goal, technically winning the game by a score of 1-0.

Even though the score would be 1-0 on paper, both goalies would be awarded a shutout if the game goes to a shootout, meaning they let zero goals in during the game.

How many overtimes are there in NHL?

In the regular season, the National Hockey League runs a single 5-minute overtime where each team ices three skaters. In the playoffs, however, 20-minute periods are run until a team scores, whether one, three, or five extra periods.

What were the most overtime periods played at the NHL level?

The longest overtime ever played in the NHL occurred in 1936 with six. However, it was nearly seven! The Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons played 116 minutes of overtime. This works out to five full overtime periods, with the Red Wings scoring at the 16-minute mark of the sixth overtime period.

What is the longest 0-0 NHL game?

The longest 0-0 NHL game would be the 1936 game between the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons. The game played through the first three periods and went into overtime 0-0. It took the teams 116 minutes of overtime before the Red Wings scored to win the game 1-0.

When did 4-on-4 overtime start in the NHL?

The four-on-four NHL format started in the 1999-00 season. However, don't confuse this format with ties no longer being allowed in the NHL. If no goal was scored in the overtime period, the game would still end in a tie. Only at the start of the 2005-06 NHL season did the league decide to get rid of tie games.

Why did NHL go to 3-on-3 overtime?

3 on 3 overtime NHL

The NHL switched to a 3-on-3 overtime format in the 2015-16 season. This was done to encourage more scoring in the overtime period and fewer games going to a shootout.

3-on-3 overtime creates more space for the players, particularly those who can play quickly. This allows more scoring opportunities and a facer pace of play, precisely what the NHL wants to prevent too many games from going to the shootout.

The timeline of changes to NHL overtime rules

In the grand scheme of things, the no tie system is a relatively new scenario for the NHL. 

The league was formed back in 1917, and tie games were allowed and quite common for many years, starting in 1942. Before that, a 10-minute overtime system was used to help find a winner in tie games.

Sudden-death overtime introduction - 1983

The league then introduced its five-minute sudden-death overtime system in 1983/84 to help eliminate tie games with each team playing at full strength five-on-five. 

At this point in history, though, a game could still end in a tie if nobody scored in the extra session, and each team would receive a point.

The change to 4-on-4 overtime - 1999

In 1999-00 the NHL altered the overtime rule by allowing each team to ice just four skaters and a goaltender during play. 

In addition, teams that won games in overtime were now awarded two points in the standings. In contrast, losers were awarded a single point. If the game ended level, then both clubs still earned a point.

The introduction of the shootout - 2005

Hockey Shootout

Tie games were effectively eliminated from the NHL when the penalty shootout was introduced in the 2005/06 season. The winner was awarded two points and the loser one point. 

The team which loses in overtime or the shootout has their result recorded as an overtime loss (OTL) in the standings.

The change to 3-on-3 overtime - 2015

The overtime rules were changed again in 2015/16 when the NHL decided the five-minute session would be decided with just three players and a goaltender on the ice for each team.

This change is due to the chances of scoring being significantly higher with just three skaters per side, as there is more room to maneuver and create scoring chances.

The NHL attempts to reward teams for winning games in regulation time; regulation victories are the first tie-breaking rule should two or more teams be level on points at the end of the regular 82-game season.

This could ultimately decide which club makes the playoffs and which team misses the postseason.

Are there ties in the NHL playoffs?

Even though overtime wasn't introduced to regular-season play until 1983, the NHL had utilized overtime in the Stanley Cup playoffs for many decades. 

It wouldn't make sense for an NHL playoff game to end in a tie. The game must have a conclusion because it is a best-of-seven format. And as a result, the teams play twenty-minute overtime periods until the first team scores to win.

Is the overtime format different in the playoffs?

The overtime period in the NHL playoffs differs significantly from those played at the end of regulation time in the regular season. The NHL goes with a twenty-minute-long period that is 5 on 5. The simplest explanation? The only thing that changes from regulation play is it is now sudden death.

3-on-3 formats and the shootout have an element of luck and individual skill. For this reason, the NHL chooses to make playoff overtime the same format as the regular season. The format that teams will play the vast majority of their games with.

Overtime in the East Cost Hockey League (ECHL)

The regular-season overtime in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) is seven minutes long rather than the standard five minutes used by the NHL and most other hockey leagues.

A more extended 3-on-3 overtime period like this should result in fewer shootouts, as there are two more minutes on the clock for players to score a goal.

How does it work in international hockey?

Most professional hockey leagues across the globe use some form of overtime and shootout system to ensure there are no tie games. 

Several recreational and amateur leagues allow ties and don't use overtime and shootouts. Recreational-level games will rarely even go into overtime, primarily because of limited ice time. Sometimes the game will go directly to a shootout or be called a tie.

In addition, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in America still allows tie games if they can't be decided in five minutes of overtime.

Regarding shootouts in International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournaments, all playoff games are decided by five-player shootouts rather than the three-round format.

The cons of a no-tie system in the NHL

With all NHL games now having a winner and loser in all games, the outcome seems straightforward. But not all hockey purists agree with the current overtime and shootout format.

Fans against the system argue that there are now too many "three-point games" in the league. This refers to the losers receiving a point while the victors get two.

Theoretically, a club could lose all 82 games in overtime and shootouts in the regular season and still make the playoffs with 82 points.

Above all, some experts and fans feel the shootout isn't a satisfactory way to determine the winner and loser of a game. These people generally feel the shootout is nothing more than a gimmick or novelty, and games should be decided in overtime.

But on the other side of the coin, those supporting shootouts counter the argument that three-on-three overtime is also a gimmick since regulation time features five-on-five play.

The Future

It is highly doubtful that pro hockey leagues will eliminate overtime in the future. Still, fans could see the NHL extend the extra period to 10 minutes from five. This would likely result in more games being decided in overtime rather than having to be determined by a shootout.

Either way, it means fans will likely never see another tie in a pro hockey game in the foreseeable future.

To recap, NHL games are now never tied and always go to overtime or shootout.

In the regular season, the NHL swapped to a shootout-style format to avoid tie games.

This involves three players from each team facing the opposing goaltender via a penalty shot situation from center ice.

Suppose the score is still level after three shots. In that case, the shootout then becomes sudden death with each ensuing shooter until a winner is declared.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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