Hockey Special Teams 1 - Powerplay Basics

Submitted by JeepinBen on April 9th, 2012 at 8:53 PM

[Ed-S: Gee golly willickers this guy knows his hockey. Bump Elliott'd]

I know it's not about Trey Burke... but Brian suggested I post it Monday night:

Hockey Special Teams 1: Power Play Basics

Brian recently asked me “What’s wrong with Michigan’s powerplay?” Since that is a complicated answer, I’ll answer it in a 3 part Diary. This one focuses on the Power Play, the next will be on the penalty kill, and once I’ve explained those basics I’ll dive into Michigan’s specifics. There are many situations that can lead to a power play during a hockey game:

First, my hockey resume: I’ve been playing hockey for 20 years. I tried out for the club team at Michigan and was told I was the 2nd best goalie trying out, but they were only taking 1 that year (they might have told that to all the goalies). I played on Sunday nights at the Cube from 2006-2009, so if you played in that student league you probably played against me. I’ve done some coaching since graduation but had to take a break from that when I changed jobs. OK, enough about that. There are plenty of better hockey minds on the board (JimLahey comes to mind) who will hopefully chime in and add to what I’ve put together here.

All powerplays have 3 parts:

1.       Establish possession in the offensive zone

2.       ????????

3.       Profit! Er. Score.

In this Diary I’m mainly going to focus on #2. In my diary on the penalty kill I’ll talk more about #1 (and how to stop it). The obvious advantage of a powerplay is that you have an extra man. The objective becomes taking advantage of that extra man and getting him a scoring change in space. It comes down to spacing and angles. Forgive the Word Art, but a basic offensive zone powerplay formation is the “Umbrella”

In this formation you have 3 players high in the zone, with one in the middle. This formation works best if the man on the left circle is a right-handed shot and the man on the right circle is a left-handed shot as seen here:

Right now the wing players are on their “opposite” sides, which allows them to be open to a pass from the middle and one-time the puck right away. We used to teach our “Quarterback” – the player at the top of the umbrella – to shoot it right away the first time he got it and establish himself as a threat. You make the PK commit to the middle player and he’ll have options on either side. In the above frame against Western, the WMU penalty killer approaching the puck is doing so after challenging the QB up top.

If you’ve got 5 minutes, this video does a good job of breaking down the Umbrella:

In the frame above, Michigan actually ran a different set off an umbrella look that lead to a goal. Rather than just cycling the puck among the top 3 guys, Michigan flipped the puck low and took advantage of what Western gave us. The same principles apply here though – get a scoring chance to a guy in space.

Another powerplay set up I learned as the “Swedish” play. This works well if you want to have 2 defensemen on the ice for the powerplay (like Red does) and you don’t want to have them switch sides (right D man is on the right side)

Again, forgive the word art. This set up lulls the defenders to sleep and sets up a quick one timer for one of your defensemen. The play starts at the top middle with a right handed defenseman. The puck should move between the top 3 players for a while until the play starts. The top defenseman passes to his partner, who passes down the wall, who passes to the man in the corner – who should be a lefty in this case. As the puck works around to the corner a few things can happen depending on what the defense gives you. The player in the corner can drive the puck to the net, look for the man directly in front of the net, or drive hard around the net and find the crashing defenseman for a one-timer. This works because the puck has been busy rotating on the right for a while, and your top left penalty killer can be caught sleeping when the defenseman crashes. Again, creates a scoring chance in space.

Those are 2 basic powerplay set ups. Now for some general powerplay non-bullets:

You have to establish possession in the offensive zone

I mentioned this above, but that is really where Michigan struggled this year. This isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, as I’ll try to show you in the upcoming “Penalty Kill” diary. It’s a lot like breaking a press in basketball. There are a lot of different neutral zone kills, and the offsides rule really helps the defenders out.

The powerplay is a lot like football plays – constraints are huge

This will come into view with the “Penalty Kill” diary, but depending on what the offense is doing, the defense does something and vice versa. There are ways to break kills, kills designed to stop specific powerplays, etc.

Powerplays can be very mental and high pressure situations

You're supposed to score, you can press, you can play tight, and you can fail. Especially if a powerplay is struggling. Like THJ - when he was in his slump, everyone knew it, when he was open for a 3 he should make it, and stuff like that can become a self fulfilling prophecy. That's the mental part. The physical is more akin to the red zone or goal line football. Everything gets turned up a notch. Again, you're supposed to score and the defense turns it up too. Every little mistake gets jumped on - if you don't have a perfect clean pass the D pounces and you have to try to gain the zone again. As an aside, Michigan’s PK was dominant against Ohio State in Cleveland, we were on every loose puck.

5-on-3 situations

A 5-on-3 is a goal one way or the other. Everything mental I just mentioned about a normal powerplay is turned up to 11. A goal is scored, either by the offensive team or by the team that shut down the 5-on-3. The momentum swing and huge boost is as good as a goal, and I am not exaggerating. Many teams will run their normal powerplay, just condensed. So rather than the umbrella being near the top of the zone, your middle guy is even with the top of the circles and your wings are closer to the dots.

A Good goalie can muck all of this up    

A team’s best penalty killer is their goalie. A goalie can affect a series more than any other player in any other sport. Some nights no matter what happens you’re not scoring on a goalie. Sometimes this is awesome and Hunwick takes us far. Sometimes we run into the hot goalie and can’t do anything about it.

Powerplays can get too fancy   

Just like a basketball team trying to get a pretty play on a 3-on-1 break, the powerplay can be over thought and fail. Sometimes you just need to make the smart pass, or throw the puck at the net. Dirty goals are still goals. On the powerplay often players will try to go for the beautiful pass for a seamless one-timer… when what they should have done is throw the puck at the net at crash it.

That’s it for my Powerplay Overview. I’ll try to get the penalty kill diary up within about a week, followed by a breakdown of where exactly Michigan struggles.



April 9th, 2012 at 10:09 PM ^

Slapshot is presently available on comcast on demand for free.  Watched it with my son and daughter the other night.  If you have children of an age that might be appropriate, take advantage.  They loved it.


If you've never seen it...WATCH IT NOW!



steve sharik

April 9th, 2012 at 10:43 PM ^

...but being an interested spectator since getting season tix from 88-89 until 92-93, I found this comment interesting:

It's a lot like breaking a press in basketball.


I played basketball as a youngster, starting at PG for my HS team, and I know that teams that are good at breaking the press use the pass, and they pass it quickly and accurately.  However, if you have a guy who is an unbelievable ball handler, that helps.

It seems like the opposite is true in establishing possession on a power play: i.e., a team has a better chance of gaining the zone if it has a dazzling puck handler (or more), but if you have a team who can effectively pass the puck it helps.

Am I on to something here, or am I totally off?  Inquiring mind wants to know.

Evil Monkey

April 9th, 2012 at 11:05 PM ^

Having a great stick handler helps a lot. Example, if the wings get the puck to Datsyuk in the neutral zone on the power play; he can take it in and set it up most times. But it's not needed. You can one pass your way through the penalty kill trap by just tipping it into the zone after a pass. The d on the other team may be.flat footed setting up easy control in the zone. Pro teams do this all the time and run it to perfection. Even if the D have momentum into the zone, an aggressive forecheck will be able to gain control.


April 10th, 2012 at 8:54 AM ^

to a point. Like I said, it really is a constraint-based system. If your powerplay breakout is "give it to our best guy and let him stickhandle and establish possession in the zone" I'll line up my guys 4 across and he won't have a chance. Puck movement is the best way to beat it, but again, my full breakdown of that will have to wait till later in the week.


April 10th, 2012 at 10:48 AM ^

On a powerplay I mean that having the puck move stick-to-stick through the neutral zone is often a better means of establishing possession in the offensive zone than having 1 guy try to weave through the whole neutral zone and gain the offensive zone. That can work, but it can also be stopped.

In other, non-powerplay, hockey situations, dump and chase can work really well (for example holding a lead late in games). A lot of it depends on your teams talent level and strengths. Some of the best teams in hockey the last few years (Hawks, Wings, Canucks) have been puck possession teams. They have the talent for it.

Evil Monkey

April 9th, 2012 at 10:46 PM ^

Michigan faced several aggressive kills this year. To go along with that, for the umbrella to succeed, you have to be patient. There were many times this year they had success, due to their patience. However, the problem they faced with these aggressive penalty kills, is it messed with there patience. To defeat an aggressive kill you have to make good, crisp, passes, along with being patient, or waiting for your opportunity. When they failed to do so, their power play failed mightily.

Sac Fly

April 9th, 2012 at 11:04 PM ^

It's been a frustrating trend to watch the last few seasons, they always try the finesse play instead of the easy one.

Against Cornell the pass across the crease was not an option because they covered crease and backside, which gave the puck handler space to work. We sent passes through the middle, knocked away and sent down all night. I liked the decision to use the formation late in the season but we just didn't have the QB, or the pointman to do it.


April 10th, 2012 at 9:54 AM ^

And in no way shape or form am I qualified to criticize Red, and he might not have felt comfortable doing this... but at some point I say "screw it" and just throw the 2nd or 3rd line out there - guys who don't usually play powerplay. Get the workers on the ice to try to get a dirty goal. If I were coach of a team in an 0-fer slump, that's what I'd try at some point.


April 10th, 2012 at 12:09 AM ^

Moving the puck is probably the most important part of the power play. The PK can always cover the shooting lanes and high-quality passing lanes if you give them a second to get set, so you have to constantly change what those lanes are, and hope that you can take advantage of one before they have time to get in position.

You left off the give-and-go out of the corner from the "Swedish" setup (I've always heard it called the "overload"). Forward on the boards passes to guy below the goal line and drives the net, functionally creating a 2 on 1 between them and the opposing defenseman covering the corner. Either the forward driving the net gets a quick return pass in the slot, or sometimes the defenseman sells out to cover the pass and lets the guy behind the net walk out front unobstructed.


April 10th, 2012 at 12:16 AM ^

This is very nicely put together and dummyed down for those who don't understand all of the smaller important aspects of whats going on here. The important thing is to generate shots. Generally shots from the PP are close goals or rebounds because the shooters have more time and space to set up. The power play has to be as willing to battle for loose pucks as the PK is. A lot of times the PP is too passive and doesnt match the intenseity of the team that is short handed. All this is a wash if you cant set up in the zone.


April 10th, 2012 at 12:34 AM ^

Dude, what team did you play for at the Cube?  I have ran the Ice Elephants team for the past 7 seasons (4 years) as a goalie myself.  

As far as the powerplay goes, it was so frustrating to see guys trying to come out from the corner and bring it into the crease.  All I want on a PP is point shots with lots of traffic in front.  


April 10th, 2012 at 9:04 AM ^

I have been looking for something like this for a while, so thank you for writing it.

I have been a hockey fan for a long time, but only casually, and never played, so I don't really know the detail in the game other than what I've picked up from Mickey Redmond, Brian, and my own eyes. However, I would like to learn more so I can better understand the game I'm watching, and this is a start.

I know you just want this diary to be 3 parts focused on the powerplay, but if you could, I am looking for some more general hockey strategy to be explained to me. For example, how are lines put together? What is the strategy behind line match-ups? Also, from a tactical standpoint, what are the offensive and defensive formations teams can adopt, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

This blog is so great because both the headline authors and community contributors share their knowledge so that I can become more educated. If someone will step up and do this for hockey, I'm sure it would be highly appreciated.


April 10th, 2012 at 9:14 AM ^

If I forget, just remind me. Here's a quick version:

Lines are put together with a "whatever works" mentality. Typically you have 4 lines of forwards, 3 pairs of defense. Your "1st" line is your best scoring line, best puckhandlers and natural scorers. This is where the Datsyuks, Toews, and Gretzkys of the world play. Your 2nd line is the poor mans' version of the 1st line. Your 3rd line is your best defensive line. You'll match them up against the other team's best scorers (if you're a coach who plays matchups) They're gritty, defenders first, and will frustrate the other team. Look at Dave Bolland's line in Chicago - especially any time they go against the Sedins. Your 4th line is your checking line, or the (relative) goons. If things are getting chippy or out of hand, send them out there (this is more true in the pros where there are fights). If you want to send a message, send them out there. The 4th line are hard workers who aren't there for goals, but are there to help impose your will on the other team.

Ideally all 4 lines have 2 very talented guys and at least one "grinder". Just like how a basketball team needs someone to get rebounds, play D, be the glue and be unselfish offensively (think Novak) hockey lines need the same.

Offense and defensive "strategies" are much more fluid in hockey than in football or basketball. As far as I know there aren't real "offensive sets" other than powerplay type stuff. Most teams either dump-and-chase or try to puck possess. The quickest way to explain this is: dump and chase teams gain the red line, dump the puck in, and go get it in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of aggression (anything from a 4-1 forcheck if you need a goal at the end of a game to a neutral zone trap which is almost like a prevent defense). On defense, you keep them out of the middle and try to clear the zone. I'll try to have a longer, real post once I finish the diary set.


April 10th, 2012 at 9:27 AM ^

In regards to your comment about the studs and goal scorer's playing on the first line, and then sort of a drop off through the other three lines: Is this why the all-star games are always such high scoring affairs? Because all four (or however many) lines are stacked with all-star talent, and everyone has the ability to put the puck in the net, and thus every line is a threat to score?


April 10th, 2012 at 9:16 AM ^

This is really fantastic, insightful content. Thanks for writing it up and posting. And thanks to Seth for front-paging it, as I might not've noticed it otherwise.


April 10th, 2012 at 2:04 PM ^

Excellent job, JeepinBen, and I appreciate the shoutout but I think you know more about this stuff than I do. I meant to post earlier but I've been busy with OHL draft stuff and trying not to fail out of school.

Anyways, you give a great breakdown and there isn't anything to correct so I'll just add a few thoughts I had.

- Generally, powerplays in Div 1 NCAA differ from those of the CHL because the quality of d-men is very comparable, but the quality of highly skilled forwards is not. There are no Taylor Halls, Steve Stamkos', Tyler Seguins, etc, running around the NCAA because forwards that good are usually in their rookie NHL season when most college players are freshmen. Which brings me to my next point...

- A powerplay's greatest asset is a sniper or a very skilled offensive defenseman. If you don't have one in the elite category, you're powerplay will likely have trouble. Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Nick Lidstrom, fall into that category. They are quarterbacks. Stamkos, Crosby, Malkin, Datsyuk, Illya Kovalchuk and many others, are forwards in this category. These guys get paid the big bucks for a reason. Michigan's powerplay struggled, IMO, because they had a great team all around but lacked an elite goal scorer or elite mobile d-man. This is why the team spent so much time waiting for perfect shots and failing, because there are only a handful of guys who can pull that off consistently (this involves being skilled both with and without the puck). Which brings me to my next point...

- "Throwing pucks at the net" is not a good strategy when you get to the NHL level. The entire strategy of a penalty kill unit is to keep the offense on the outside and force them to take bad shots i.e. shots your goalie can just cover or easily save. Goalies in the NHL are too good for that shit and will welcome a team throwing pucks at the net. Too easy. If you perceived Michigan as just "throwing pucks at the net" this was probably due to their inability to execute Red's plan, not because he told them to. Which brings me to my next point...

- The entire point of an NHL level powerplay is to get 1 or 2 PREMIUM scoring opportunities. If you have adequate goal scorers on your team and you generate 1 or 2 PREMIUM scoring chances on every powerplay then you will have an excellent PP scoring percentage. Like I said, goalies are too good now, the idea behind a powerplay is to exploit the man advantage by getting your best players in space and letting them do what they do. D-men are taught to let it go from the point when A. The lane is open B. They are at least close to the top of the circles or closer. C. They can keep the shot low. Not adhering to those rules will often result in breakaways in the other direction, forfeiting puck possession (THE cardinal sin), hurting your teammates, or an easy save for the goalie.

- As for getting the puck in the zone, that is probably the hardest part. I'll save my comments on that for your diary on Penalty Kill since this post has been way too long.

- Finally, I think Trouba is going to help the PP for Michigan. He may not be Drew Doughty, but he's quick, smart, big, and has a killer shot. Those are all ingredients for a premier powerplay Quarterback. Also, Steve Stamkos was the most frustrating player I ever played against. If he got the puck on his stick anywhere within an 18 foot radius of the net he was just automatic. He has his corner picked out before he even gets the puck. Very hard to defend. Obviously, that trend continues with his NHL career.

I Bleed Maize N Blue

April 10th, 2012 at 7:00 PM ^

I'm going to disagree a little bit about "throwing pucks at the net."  It is bad if you're shooting on a goalie who can see the puck.. Don't do it then, because most NHL goalie's will make the save on a puck they can see.  It is also bad if a team is good at blocking shots, and if you're winding up to take a slapshot, it's easier to block, and the puck gets send back down the ice.

However, Red Wings coach Babcock often talks about throwing more pucks at the net (not necessarily related to the power play), because the Wings get too cute and pass too much, looking for the perfect setup, rather than shooting more.  More pucks at the net means more rebounds, and sometimes you need to get a gritty goal by going to the net and knocking in a rebound, because waiting for the pretty shot isn't working.

On the PP Tomas Holmstrom is very important, because he is willing to take punishment (less nowadays compared to earlier in his career, when they didn't enforce the rules as much*) to stand in front of the goalie.  If the goalie can't see the puck, he probably won't make the save unless it hits him.  Also Homer is good at tipping pucks.

Which leads to having a good QB on your PP, like Nick Lidstrom, and good "throwing pucks at the net."  Faking a shot is important, becuase that can get a PK man to commit to the block.  If he goes all the way down to the ice, now you can shoot over him.  If he commits one way, then you can shoot around him the other way.  And if the goalie is looking around Homer to one side, that leaves an opening on the other.

Also the point man may do a shot-pass.  Looks like a shot, but you take something off, and you're really passing to an area where your man in front of the net can tip the puck.  (Of course in the NHL there is ample time to practice tipping pucks.)  And if you're at Joe Louis Arena, which has boards that give big rebounds, you actually send the puck past the net and off the boards.  If the goalie is high up in the crease, he has to scramble back to cover the post, and maybe he can't get back in time before the man at the side of the net shoots the puck in off the carom.

I get frustrated when the Wolverines have a lot of shots blocked.  It's incumbent on the point men to get the puck past the high players on the PK.  That may mean using the quicker wristshot more than the slapshot.  That may mean shooting around a defender and hoping your forwards can get to the puck and do something.  Of course with time limits on practice, you can't practice everything.


*Once upon a time in the NHL, if you were on the PK, you could crosscheck, interfere and slash with near-impunity.  Try to get to the front of the net, and a defenseman would interfere with you and crosscheck you multiple times to clear the area.  (Which is why Homer wears extra padding).  If you did get to the front of the net, the goalie would slash you - chop at your ankles, the backs of your legs, even give you an uppercut to the groin (ouch!).


April 10th, 2012 at 4:17 PM ^

Don't know how you learned all of this strategy as a goalie. The only tactics I ever bothered learning was the breakout so I knew where I could blindly fling a puck when I needed to. 


April 10th, 2012 at 4:32 PM ^

and had the same (very good) high school coach for Jr and Sr years. We ran 4 different penalty kills and we all had to know them. In addition to that, I got into coaching after graduation, so I learned that way too.