TORONTO – Give me 3-on-3 till infinity.
Lock me in a room with a 4K TV. Hand me pompoms. Feed me nothing but popcorn and odd-man rushes.
“3-on-3 is… I can’t use the words that I want to use,” says Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, pausing to find some PG phrasing.
“It’s a free-for-all of fecal matter. It’s a s***show out there, and that’s great.”
I wasn’t the only media member who had issues sitting still in his assigned swivel chair Wednesday night between minutes 60 and 65 of a 3-3 hockey game between the talent-loaded Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, skill on full display.
From end to end, the trios sprinted and swirled, conjuring glorious opportunities matched only by jaw-dropping saves.
“It was nuts,” Jets forward Mason Appleton said. “There were so many opportunities at both ends, I couldn’t believe that the game didn’t end in overtime.”
Together the sides crammed 15 shot attempts into five minutes, highlighted by wonderful chances to freeze the clock by stars like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and William Nylander.
A whistle interrupted the action just once the entire overtime, when a deflected shot flew into the netting. Everything else was fast and fluid.
“That’s great entertainment for the crowd,” Laine said. “You know, trading chances and goalies were playing great. I think both teams had the keys to finish this game but couldn’t do it.”
Frederik Andersen stoned Jack Roslovic on a 2-on-0, then Mark Scheifele on a 1-on-0, spurring two rounds of “Fred-die! Fred-die!” chants as play carried on.
“I didn’t like it all. I didn’t enjoy any of it, as a matter of fact. I thought it was horrible for the Jets,” said Maurice, assessing Andersen’s sudden-death work.
“Just specialness comes out in the 3-on-3. You see a lot of 2-on-0s in a game where you make a save, or breakaways, but special players making those plays.”
Alas, the only thing OT solved on this night was boredom.
“Fun hockey. A lot of skill guys on our team, a lot of skill guys on their team, and it was really fun,” said Scheifele, admitting he felt like a swath of the fans, a tad let down once the format switched to the shootout. “You kinda want to keep it going, it was so fun.”
Would Scheifele be open to the idea of extending 3-on-3 beyond the five-minute mark?
“I’d be down for that,” he replied. “Yeah, for sure.”
Andersen agrees: “I’d like to see more overtime, to be honest.”
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe is open to the idea as well, figuring, “Once you get past regulation, all bets are off.”
We tried to convince a few of the other principals, but it’s easier to crave more when you’re on the edge of your seat, not the edge of exhaustion.
“I’d probably feel more tired. The fans get a kick out of it. Fans probably like the shootout too,” said Blake Wheeler, who ended the madness with a shootout winner.
“3-on-3, you get some talent and some open ice, some pretty cool stuff happens, and I think you’re seeing more often than not the games are being decided in that overtime, so I think that’s a good start.”
“My opinion is, I think five minutes is good,” Laine said. “For us, we’re playing with three lines. Each is getting like two or three shifts max, so in my opinion, that’s pretty good. It’s a little bit [exhausting]. It’s a lot of skating, a lot of room on the ice… but that’s why we work out during the summers.”
Maurice admits he wasn’t a fan of 3-on-3 when the NHL adopted the format in 2015. Now he’s convinced it’s outstanding entertainment.
“If you’re going to spend money to come to see a game, somebody should win and somebody should lose,” Maurice said. “I used to drive two-and-a-half hours to Norfolk during one of the lockouts to watch a hockey game. The idea that it would end in a tie after that is sad. So I love the shootout for what it is: it’s exciting for the fans; it’s not so much for the coaches.”
The notion of extending 3-on-3, however, and further taxing star players may never get approval from the Players’ Association, and Maurice understands why.
The Jets even stop practising 3-on-3 after training camp because of the physical cost of skating 200 feet for each shot and enduring those lung-straining shifts that can drag on well beyond the recommended 30 seconds.
“I don’t think you can do it to the players. I truly don’t,” Maurice explained, minutes before hoping a flight to try to win another tough game Thursday.
The last thing his best players need is another 3-on-3 shift of high-pressure hockey.
“We’re going to Boston, and we’re getting to our hotel at three o’clock in the morning. You add that, I don’t think it’d be good for the players.”
But, selfishly, great for my adrenaline.