It’s that time of year again! Play along with #PlayforOT

The National Hockey League is beginning its 98th season, and the 2014-2015 campaign marks the 10th consecutive season that the league will continue using the point system that it initially implemented after the 2004 lockout.

To review, here’s the current point system:

Win (regulation, overtime, shootout): 2 points
Loss (overtime, shootout): 1 point
Loss (regulation): 0 points

And here’s the expected point total for each team:

Overtime game: 1.5 points/team
Regulation: 1 point/team

For any of this blog’s newer readers, the increased incentives for overtime games have had three primary effects on game outcomes. They are as follows:

1) Teams play more overtime games than they used to.

Exactly 1 in 4 games went to overtime last year, compared to 1 in 5 games from past point systems. While that doesn’t sound like a big difference, that’s between 60 and 70 additional overtime games per season in the new points system.

Or, 60 to 70 extra points floating around the league’s standings.

2) Teams play more overtime games towards the end of the regular season. 

As the playoff chase heats up, so to do the rates of overtime games. About 30% of March and April games have reached overtime over the past few years, an increase over the 20% of games that reached OT between October and December. The implication is that teams play for overtime when the pressure to improve in the standings is higher, because overtime guarantees each participating team at least one point.

Last April was a great example: 6 of the league’s final 11 games went to overtime!

As a point of reference, in April of past point systems (for example, 1997-1999, when there was no point for overtime losers), only about 15% of games went to overtime.

3) Teams play overtime games more frequently against nonconference opponents. 

In my opinion, this is the most damning issue. If you are the Bruins, conceding a point to Vancouver is much preferred over conceding a point to Montreal, because the Canucks, unlike the Canadiens, are not a threat when it comes to postseason qualification. As a result, we would expect teams to be more apt to play OT against nonconference opponents. Sure enough, in previous research (see link here), I estimated about a 15-20% increase in the odds of overtime against nonconference opponents, relative to conference ones.

Further, certain teams appeared to have identified this inefficiency more than others. From the Sloan Conference last year, here’s my poster with team specific odds of overtime, comparing nonconference to conference games in different point systems.

You can also read more about this issue in this article that I wrote for The Hockey News. 

What happened last year?

Beginning last winter, I started to monitor teams playing for overtime using the twitter hashtag #playforOT. While many of those tweets have been lost in the archives, here are a few examples of boxscores that I uncovered last year.

Ex. 1: Columbus and Calgary posted just two shots on goal in final 4.5 minutes, none from inside 60 feet, to play for OT.

Ex. 2: In a tilt between Chicago and Florida in October, neither team recorded a shot within 36 feet in the game’s final eight minutes.

Ex. 3:In Chicago’s contest with Carolina, there were no shots in the game’s final 120 seconds (counting missed, blocked, or on goal shots). In hockey, that’s pretty hard to do.

Ex. 4: it must have been fun to watch the last three minutes of this one between Anaheim and Tampa Bay!

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 11.53.11 PM

Overall, given the league’s updated realignment (now, teams are judged relative to only their divisional opponents), we also observed a higher proportion of non-divisional within conference games (26%) than ever before.

So what about the 2014-2015 season?

If the league’s point system inefficiencies (or its loser point, or the 19 columns that the league standings require) bother you too, then play along.

Tweet (using #playforOT, or to @StatsbyLopez) box scores or anecdotes from games where teams stop trying to score in the waning minutes of tie game. While many OT games are likely due to chance, I feel strongly that because the league’s incentives for teams to play OT are as strong as ever, and that we will continue to see several games in which teams stop trying to score in order to reach OT.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the extra session.

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