What is a power play?

There are times in a hockey game that are more important than others. Definitely some of the most important times are when a team goes on the power play.

So, what is a power play? A power play in hockey happens when one team takes a penalty (where the player must leave the ice for two minutes or more), creating an advantage for the other team who can now play on the ice with more players. The coach usually sends out his best offensive players when they have the power play. 

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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
  • 5 on 3
  • 4 on 3

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.

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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