For starters, it is exciting. Teams have the choice of playing with a top center and two defensemen, two forwards with a lock-down defenseman, or even go for broke and put three forwards on the ice, creating a new level of strategy that adds another dimension to overtime that was not there before. The amount of open ice three-on-three leaves has led to heart-palpitating plays up and down the ice for both teams. If one team gets an odd man rush and is stopped, one long pass out of the defensive zone leads to a partial breakaway on the other side, allowing the other team to put the game away. Look at the Rangers OT loss to the Devils just over a week ago. Derek Stepan hit the post, the puck careened back towards center ice and led to a two-on-one breakaway for New Jersey that led to Lee Stempniak’s game-winning goal. It’s incredibly frustrating for Ranger fans, awesome for Devil fans, but overall just exciting for all fans.
Another importance of three-on-three OT is that it limits the amount of games that go to shootouts. I personally cannot stand the shootout. It is a skills competition that doesn’t properly gauge a team’s overall abilities, but rather a handful of players’ ability to defeat the opposing goaltender in a one-on-one matchup. A team should not be able to get a crucial extra point in the standings simply because they have more skilled shootout players than another team. Games should be decided by events that would actually occur in a hockey game. A penalty shot is awarded when a player is on a breakaway and would essentially have had the same chance at a goal if he was not illegally stopped, but having players consistently have breakaways over and over again until one team scores more than the other is not the way to decide a regular season game.
Obviously you cannot have games continue into numerous overtimes in the regular season when teams have games on back-to-back nights and some have to travel in order to get to them, but I have a solution. Keep the three-on-three OT. You can even go back to four-on-four if you wish. But after that, the game ends in a tie. I would personally rather the game end in a tie by 60 minutes and five OT minutes than have teams earn an extra point for a skills competition. But I digress; I love three-on-three OT for the excitement it brings to the game, and for limiting games that end in a shootout.