How Does the Controversial NHL Shootout Work?

How the Tiebreaker Works and Why It's Still a Point of Debate

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 8 - United States v Russia
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To break a tie score after a five-minute overtime period, National Hockey League teams participate in a shootout. Three players from each team alternate taking penalty shots against the opposing goaltender. If the score remains tied after each team takes its three shots, the shootout moves to the sudden-death phase, whereby the first team to score is the winner.

The shootout does not replace overtime in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It is only be used to decide regular season games, and only after five minutes of overtime.


Early in the history of the NHL, ties after regulation play were decided in a 10-minute overtime period, but that changed in 1942 when the overtime was eliminated and games ended in ties. In 1983, the NHL added a five-minute overtime period, but if the game was still tied after overtime, it remained tied. Beginning with the 2005-06 season, the NHL implemented the shootout to determine a winner in regular season games.

In a separate effort, the NHL changed its rules beginning in 1999 to give a point to each team if the game was tied after regulation. The eventual winner gets an additional point. In games that don't go into overtime, the winner gets two points and the loser gets none. The league hoped this change would reduce the number of ties.

The Case for the Shootout

Supporters of the shootout as a tiebreaker cite the following as reasons the shootout should remain a part of the NHL rules:

  • Nothing matches the tension, anticipation, and thrill of a shootout.
  • The shootout is fast, exciting, delivers immediate results, and is easy for casual fans to follow.
  • The NHL needs goals. Scoring has declined since the 1980s, and most teams play a boring, defense-first style. Hockey is supposed to be about scoring. The shootout returns goal-scoring to its rightful place at the center of the game.
  • Hockey is an evolving game, and change is good. For example, the forward pass was illegal until 1911, and regular season overtime didn't begin until 1983.

The Case Against the Shootout

While the supporters ultimately won, those against the use of the shootout had their reasons, too:

  • The shootout may be fun, but it isn't hockey. Hockey is a team game, not a series of breakaways. Players have to earn scoring chances by out-working and out-skating opponents.
  • The shootout is a gimmick, the equivalent of deciding a baseball game with a home run contest or breaking a football tie by having quarterbacks throw the ball through a tire.
  • There's nothing wrong with a tie. If teams can't decide a winner after 65 minutes of hockey, a tie is a just result.
  • The shootout is a great novelty, nothing more. That novelty has worn thin, and players and fans on the losing end of shootouts feel cheated.
  • Another change to the game means more complications in the NHL standings. SOL (shootout losses) replace ties. More points are handed out, making historical comparisons between teams even more difficult. Player stats require yet another category for shootout goals and saves.

How the NHL Shootout Works

In the shootout, each team names three shooters. If the game remains tied after the three shooters are done, teams continue shooting in sudden death mode, but the game cannot end until each team has taken the same number of shots.

With the adoption of the shootout, ties are eliminated from the NHL standings. A team is awarded two points for a win (listed as "W"), zero points for a regulation loss ("L"), and one point for a game lost in overtime or a shootout ("OT" or "OTL").

The shootout does not count toward individual statistics. A shootout goal is not added to a player's total goals or total points. A shootout goal allowed is not included in the goaltender's goals against, goals-against average, or save percentage. The shootout has no bearing on -minus or other in-game statistics.

If a game is tied 0-0 at the end of overtime, both goaltenders are credited with a shutout, regardless of which team wins the shootout or how many shootout goals are scored. Individual shootout statistics are calculated as a separate category in the official NHL statistics.

The winning team in the shootout gets one goal added to its season total. The losing team has one goal-against added to its season total. This holds regardless of how many goals are scored during the shootout itself.

The shootout is preceded by a two-minute break, during which the ice-clearing machine cuts a fresh lane from center ice to each net.

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