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Most sports play their games in quarters or halves. But in hockey, the play occurs in periods. This use of periods is less self-explanatory than a quarter or halves. How many of these periods do NHL games have? Are the periods all the same length of time? Is overtime a period? This article will go into detail on hockey’s periods and cover how overtime factors into a game’s usual rules.
Hockey games always have three periods. At the NHL level, periods run for 20 minutes each. Recreational and youth hockey periods are usually between 15 and 20 minutes each. Games that are tied at the end of three periods go into overtime, which is a shorter period of extra time play. Overtime is five minutes in the regular season, but it changes to a 20-minute sudden-death style in the playoffs.
How Many Periods Are in a Hockey Game?
For newcomers to the sport of hockey, this question of “periods” can be a confusing one.
Sports such as basketball and football play in “quarters,” which clearly refers to four parts of a whole game. Soccer plays “halves,” dividing the game into two parts.
But hockey is played in periods. Every hockey game always has three of these periods. These periods can vary in length depending on the level of hockey being played. But three periods, each of the same amount of time, are standard regardless of their duration.
Everyone involved with the game from the players to spectators and commentators refers to the periods as the “first period,” “second period,” and “third period.” The rule and structure of a three-period, 20-minute game were first implemented in the National Hockey Association (NHA) in the 1910-11 season. Prior to 1910, games were actually played in two 30-minute periods.
The NHA later reorganized itself and in 1917 launched as the National Hockey League (NHL) that we know today. The NHL has always retained the three-period, 20-minute game structure. The only exception to the three-period structure comes if the game is tied at the end of regulation time. In that case, the game goes into overtime.
Is Overtime a Period in Hockey?
Overtime does count as a period in hockey. But it isn’t exactly viewed or referred to as the fourth period – it’s seen more as extra time.
In other words, no one calls overtime the “fourth period.” It’s simply called “overtime.” Overtime plays do count toward player and goaltender statistics as they would during regulation play. Overtime is an extension of regulation play, so its outcome is reflected in the stat-sheet.
If a goal isn’t scored in the standard single overtime period, most leagues then finish the game in a shootout. The shootout does not count as a period in the game and occurs without time on the clock. Unlike overtime, shootout plays (e.g. goals, saves) do not count toward the regular stats of the shooters and the goalies. Separate shootout stats are kept, but the shootout itself only determines the final winner of the game.
More on this in my article on OTL.
How Long Is a Hockey Period?
A standard period of hockey lasts for 20 minutes. Professional hockey leagues, such as the NHL, minor pro leagues, major junior leagues, and European leagues always play 20-minute periods.
These three 20-minute periods combine for what is a 60-minute game. In professional leagues, there is an intermission that separates the end of the first period from the start of the second period, and the end of the second period from the start of the third period. These intermissions and stoppages in play add up to make the game last longer than the actual 60 minutes of game action. But intermissions, of course, don’t count as periods in the game.
In recreational and youth leagues, periods can be shorter than 20 minutes. Usually, though, they don’t run for less than 15 minutes per period. 15-minute periods are often used because arena ice bookings may only last for between 60 and 90 minutes. These games won’t have intermissions like professional leagues do, so the game needs to fit into the briefer timeslot. To account for stoppages in play and a momentary pause for the between period reset, shorter periods are arranged beforehand.
Because ice timeslots run close together, most of these recreational leagues won’t play overtime if a game ends its regulation time in a tie. Some leagues will arrange for a quick shootout, but other leagues still allow for games to end in a tie. Professional leagues no longer end with tie games. This rule changed beginning in the 2005-06 season when the NHL had just returned from the lost lockout season of 2004-05.
Prior to 2005, in NHL regular season games, teams would play a single five-minute overtime period if the game’s regulation time ended in a tie.
If neither team scored in the five minutes, the game would end in a tie and both teams would receive one point in the standings for the tie – whereas a winner would receive two points.
How Do Playoff Overtime Periods Work?
In the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, overtime periods run for the same length of time as a standard period – 20 minutes.
These playoff overtime periods are “sudden death” over time, meaning that they keep running until one team scores a goal. It’s called “sudden death” because the game ends as soon as one team scores – unlike the extra time in soccer, for example, which can have multiple goals scored across add-on time.
The playoff overtime periods run for 20 minutes and will feature a shorter intermission if subsequent periods are required beyond the first one. The intermission basically lasts as long as it takes for the Zamboni to resurface the ice, rather than waiting the full 17 minutes of the standard intermission break.
Once again, these overtime periods aren’t referred to as the game’s “fourth period” (and so on, if the playoff game requires further overtime periods). Instead, additional overtime periods are called “double overtime” (and so on). The overtime periods are abbreviated at 1OT, 2OT, 3OT, and so on.
So, although every other hockey game will limit you to a maximum of 65 minutes (60 minutes of regulation plus five minutes of overtime), playoff overtime can extend well beyond the duration of a typical three-period hockey game.
Especially long playoff overtime games aren’t all that common, but the NHL playoffs will usually feature at least a few games that reach double and, occasionally, triple-overtime every year.
In the modern era of the NHL, the longest overtime game ended 12 minutes into the fifth overtime period. That means the game played the equivalent of seven-and-a-half standard periods. This record-breaking overtime game was won by the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2000.
But this type of extended playoff overtime represents the extreme end of the hockey period scale. Most professional league games will only play the standard 20-minute, three-period format. Recreational and youth leagues commonly play shorter periods as well. Overtime counts as a period, in a reduced extra time form. The only time hockey goes beyond the overtime period’s fourth frame is in sudden-death playoff hockey, which is played until one team scores.