What is a power play?

The power play is one of the key times in any hockey game. Often how a team does on their power play is the difference between winning and losing. 

So, what is a power play? A power play in hockey is one team has an advantage of having more players on the ice because than their opponent has taken a penalty and must remove a player from the game for a specified duration of time. 

The team who now has more players on the ice – a power play – than their opponent will send out their best offensive players in a concentrated effort to score with this opportunity.

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How does a team get a power play?

Hockey is an intense, fast-moving game. As with any sport, there are things that you can do and that you cannot do. When a player breaks certain rules, the referee will call a penalty on the offending player.

When a player in hockey receives a penalty, he must go to what is called the penalty box and sit there for the designated amount of time based on the penalty he has incurred. The majority of the time the penalty is for 2 minutes; however, they can also receive penalties of 4, 5 or 10 minutes in length for severe infractions.

The key thing to know about taking a penalty is: when a player goes to serve their penalty in the penalty box for the designated amount of time, the team he is on does not get to replace that player on the ice with another player from their team. They will be ‘shorthanded’ on the ice for the length of the penalty infraction or until the other team scores.

After the penalty is given, the team that does not have the penalty will now have more players on the ice and that advantage is called a power play.

What does a power play look like on the ice? 

In standard play, two teams will be playing each other at full strength: that means each has their full allotment of skaters of 5 players against 5 players. If a player on team A then takes a penalty, they will go to the penalty box. Team B will now have 5 skaters on the ice versus 4 for team A, which creates an obvious mismatch and potential scoring opportunities (for Team B).

Now, if a team takes more than one penalty, they do not keep on losing players until it is just 5 skaters against a goalie! There can be multiple players in the penalty box, but the maximum number of players that a team will lose of the ice is two. Therefore, the minimum number of players a team will ever have on the ice is three.

Here are the three different possible power play combinations:

  • 5 on 4 (a one-man advantage)
  • 5 on 3 (a two-man advantage)
  • 4 on 3 (a one-man advantage)

How much of an advantage does a power play make? 

When a team gets a power play, it does increase their chances of scoring significantly. In the 2018-19 NHL season, the power play efficiency (the percentage of time a team scores when given a power play) for a team ranged from a low of 12.9% from the Nashville Predators to a high of 28.2% from the Tampa Bay Lightning. The league average for scoring on the power play was 19.7%.

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As a whole, 19.3% of the total goals in the NHL are scored on the power play. This makes it even more impressive when you consider that only a small portion of the game will be played on the power play while most of it is played even strength. 

The power play and penalty killing together are called “special teams”. Coaches are constantly saying that games are won or lost based on the performance of special teams. When you look at how hard it is to score in the NHL — given the quality of defensive play and goaltending —, the power play becomes a key opportunity that a team will want to capitalize on to give themselves a chance to win. Scoring one or two power play goals per game goes along way to helping a team win a hockey game. 

How does the power play end? 

The power play can come to an end in three ways:

  1. The team on the power play scores
  2. The penalty is served in full
  3. The team on the power play takes a penalty

1. When the team on the power play scores

When the advantaged team scores a goal, the power play will come to an end on any minor penalty, which is classified as a 2-minute penalty. However, when a player has received a 5 minute major, the player has to serve the entire penalty, and the team with the player advantage can try and score as many goals as possible within that 5 minutes without the penalized player being allowed back on the ice. 

If two players are in the box, creating a 5-on-3, and the advantaged team scores, then only one player from the penalty box is allowed back on the ice. The player with the least amount of time left on his penalty will have his penalty end. 

2. Penalty served in full

The power play will come to an end once the penalty has been served in full and the penalized player is back on the ice — now the teams have the same amount of skaters.

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3. Team on the Power Play takes a penalty

Commonly, a team on the power play will take a penalty of their own. If this happens, the player with the penalty infraction will go to the penalty box and the team will be now down that player on the ice. If this happens, for example, with a 5-on-4 power play, the teams will now be playing 4-on-4. However, the team who received the first penalty will eventually have their full penalty served; when this happens, they will now have a power play from when the player leaves the penalty box until the opposing team’s penalty ends.

What are some power play strategies that a team uses to score? 

The power play is one of the prime opportunities that a team has to score so of course teams plan and practice strategies to score on the power play. 

Here are some of the ways they will try to score when they have the numerical advantage: 

1. 1-3-1 Power Play

This is the most common type of formation you will see from a team. The 1-3-1 is describing the setup of the team in the offensive zone.

The first one is for the defenceman at the top of the blueline. The three for the 3 forwards who will be standing at the half boards on either side of the net and one in high slot.  The final 1 is for the player who is down low beside/behind or in front of the net trying to screen the goalie. 

This formation is used because it gives the players on the team many different options how to score. They can try to work it back to the defensemen at the point for a shot, or they can play it off the half boards to the slot of work a play down low with the low forward. 

As you watch the power play you will notice players are always trying to work a play for a one timer, cross-ice pass, or shot in the high slot. The advantage of each of these is that they either get the goalie moving from side-to-side which is much harder to save than if they can square up to the puck or that the shot is coming in from so close that they do not have time to react to get set or make the save. 

2. Umbrella Power Play

The Umbrella Power Play is the classic NHL power play. It involves two defensemen at the blue line and two forwards at the half boards. This creates the umbrella image with the final players in front of the net to create the stem or handle of the umbrella. 

The players in the umbrella will work the puck around the perimeter of the umbrella  to work at getting an open shot on net while the player in the front will attempt to screen the goalie or score on a deflection. 

The forward on the opposite side of where the puck is being shot will also crash the net to help screen or get rebounds from the shot taken.

Related Questions

What happens if someone takes a penalty in overtime? 

Overtime is played 3-on-3 so if someone takes a penalty, does it become a 3-on-2? No, remember that no team will ever have less than 3 skaters on the ice. It would be too difficult to defend if you only had two skaters on the ice. Therefore, if a team takes a penalty in overtime, the NHL changes the number of men on the ice in overtime so that the power play will be a 4-on-3 power play. The penalized player will go to the box, and both the penalized team and power play teams will add a player to the ice making it 4 skaters against 3. 

What happens if a penalty is taken at the end of a period?

When a penalty is taken near the end of a period, for example with two minutes or less, the penalty will simply carry over to the start of the next period. Let’s say that a two minute penalty comes with one minute left in the 2nd period. A minute of that penalty is served in the 2nd period and the next minute will be served at the start of the 3rd period.

If the penalty is incurred within the last two minutes of the 3rd (final) period, the player will be in the penalty box until the game ends, but there is no carry over to subsequent games. If the 3rd period ends in a tie, the penalty will carry over into overtime.

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

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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