How many players are on the ice in hockey? Regulation, penalties and OT

When learning about hockey one of the first things to get straight is how many players are supposed to be on the ice. This is definitely not always straightforward, because different situations on the ice call for a different amount of players on the ice.

Let’s find out why sometimes there are five, four, or three players skating around for your team.

How many players are on the ice in hockey? The number of players on the ice at any time is determined by the game situation. At even-strength there are five (5) players plus a goalie; when a penalty has occurred the penalized team will have three or four (3 or 4) players; during overtime each team will skate with three players (3). 

Let’s look at each of these scenarios and get an idea of how many players are on the ice in each of these situations and how they are deployed. 

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How many players dress for a game?

The best place to start is to not look at how many players are on the ice, but how many players dress for each game.

Each team is allowed to dress a roster of 20 players for each game.

This is broken down as the following:

  • 12 Forwards
  • 6 Defensemen 
  • 2 Goalies

There are a number of exceptions and good to knows about the roster, and I have written a full post on the NHL Roster.  

How many players during the normal course of play?

During the normal course of play (when there is no overtime or penalties) each team will have 6 players on the ice:

  • 3 Forwards (Center, Left Wing, Right Wing)
  • 2 Defensemen
  • 1 Goalie

This type of play is most often referred to as 5-on-5 or full-strength hockey. When talking about the number of players on the ice it is assumed that the goalie is in net, and the number stated refers to the rest of the players on the ice. 

Therefore, a commentator will always refer to the five (5) players on the ice, even though there is technically six (6) with the goalie. 

Most of an NHL game is played 5-on-5, but there are exceptions when a team does not have five (5) skaters on the ice. Let’s talk a look at those. 

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What happens with penalties?


Something that is as common to hockey as ice are penalties.

Penalties are infractions that one team commits against the other team that causes them to have to sit a player for 2 to 5 minutes.  When a team commits a penalty, such as tripping, the player sits in the penalty box for 2 minutes with no substitute from their team.

Therefore, the team will be short a player and will have to play the other team with only four (4) skaters plus a goalie on the ice. The other team will still have five (5) skaters and is on what called the power play, and is an excellent chance to be able to score.  

The team that is shorthanded (with less than 5 players) can take another player and drop to three (3) players on the ice, but no team can have less than 3 players (not including the goalie).

The different combination of power play/shorthanded situations look like this:

  • 5-on-4
  • 5-on-3
  • 4-on-3 (one team has one penalty and the other has two)

If both teams have taken a penalty at the same time they will play 4-on-4.


How many players on the ice in overtime?

There is one more time when the number of players on the ice gets changed – overtime!

During the regular season, if a game is tied at the end of three periods, the game will go to overtime.

The overtime is 5 minutes of additional play that is added onto the game, and if no one scores then the game is decided by shootout. 

The NHL wants to limit the number of games that go to a shootout, so they play overtime 3-on-3 with goalies. 

When hockey is played at 3-on-3 the game is more wide-open, and there are more scoring chances. It can be extremely exciting to watch. There are many nuances that incorporate overtime that you can learn about. 

If a team takes a penalty while in overtime, the game is not played at 3-on-2. Instead, when the play resumes a team will get a 4-on-3 power play. A 3-on-2 penalty would simply be too big of a disadvantage. 


What happens if you have the wrong number of players on the ice? 

Teams do, often, send out the wrong number of players onto the ice. 

As you watch a hockey game you will see players constantly changing on and off the ice with each other while the game is still being played. The continuous action is one of the great things about hockey. 

However, this continuous action causes the team to have some miscommunication on the player’s bench and a player goes on the ice when they are not supposed too. If a team gets caught having to many players on the ice – for instance, 6 when they should only have 5 – they will be assessed a 2 minute minor penalty for too many men on the ice.

The coach gets to pick any player from the team to serve the penalty, but they will be shorthanded for the next 2 minutes of play. 

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