Can you have a 5 on 2 in hockey?

One of the times I get the most anxious when watching hockey is when my team is killing a penalty. I get really anxious when the team takes two quick penalties and are forced to kill a 5-on-3 power play. But, what happens if they take another penalty while already down two skaters? 

Can you have a 5 on 2 in hockey? No, a team can never have less than 3 players on the ice. If a team takes a penalty while they have three players on the ice the penalty will be served at the expiry of the penalty with the least amount of time left. 

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Let’s look at the rules and situations behind this more closely. 

What happens when a team takes a penalty while they only have three players on the ice?

The rule about numbers of players on the ice in the NHL indicates that at no time a team shall have less than 3 players on the ice – this does not include the goalie. 

Therefore, a team shall never be put in a position where they will only have 2 skaters on the ice against the opposition. 

Only having 2 skaters on the ice is deemed to be too much of an advantage for the team on the power play. If you only had two skaters there is almost no means to not allow a goal, and the penalty would in some ways be considered an automatic goal.

So what happens when a team takes a penalty when they only have three players on the ice? There is a difference if this happens during regulation or overtime so let’s look at both. 

What happens if there is a penalty on 5 on 3 in regulation play?

During regulation time it is fairly common to see a team get a 5-on-3 power play. To get to this point a team will have to take two penalties, usually within a 2 minute timeframe – while the other team has not taken any.

So when a team takes a penalty while they only have three players on the ice are they forced to go down to two players? 

No, if a player takes a penalty while the team only has 3 players on the ice a team is allowed to substitute another player from their bench in his place. Instead, his penalty will be served at the conclusion of the penalty with the least amount of time remaining and when that penalty expires they will not be allowed back on the ice. So the team is still penalized, but it is best called a delayed penalization.

Let’s do a quick example to make sure we understand it.

We will use the 1986 Oilers as a case study.

Let’s say Wayne Gretzky takes a penalty at the 10:00 minute mark for a 2 minute minor penalty. Easy enough, the Oilers are down at a 5-on-4 skaters. 

Then Mark Messier takes another 2 minute minor penalty at the 10:30 minute mark. The Oilers are now down 5-on-3.

Finally, Paul Coffey takes a 2 minute penalty at the 11:00 minute mark. Instead, of going down 5-on-2 the Oilers stay down 5-on-3. Coffey has to go to the box and the Oilers will send Kevin Lowe off the bench in his place, but he will not start serving his penalty until Gretzky’s penalty is finished at the 12:00 minute mark.

At the 12:00 minute mark Gretzky will not come out of the box while the play is going, but the Oilers will still be down 5-on-3. The Oilers will stay at a 5-on-3 deficit until Messier’s penalty ends at 12:30, which at this time Messier will be allowed back on the ice and the Oilers will now be down 5-on-4.

Gretzky will not be allowed to leave the box until a stoppage of play happens after his penalty has been served. This could happen at the 12:00 minute mark or after, but he is not allowed to leave until the whistle blows. At that point he can rejoin the play as the Oilers see fit. 

Can there be a 3-on-2 power play in overtime?

When overtime starts in the NHL the format goes to 3-on-3 for skaters instead of the standard 5-on-5 in regulation. 

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Overtime in the NHL is really fun to watch as there are so many great scoring chances and plays – and, of course, the next goal wins the game!

But, there are also penalties in overtime. So, when a team gets a penalty does it become 3-on-2? No, again no team will be penalized so that they have less than 3 skaters on the ice. 

When a penalty happens in overtime at 3-on-3 there is a stoppage in play and when the power play starts it becomes a 4-on-3. If another penalty takes place then it will become a 5-on-3.

I am always a little disappointed when a penalty is called in overtime, because I would rather see 3-on-3 play than a 4-on-3 power play – even if it is for the team I’m cheering for. 


You never have to worry about your team only having 2 skaters on the ice. The only thing you need to be concerned about is the other team having a very, very, very long 5-on-3. 

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I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

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