Hockey Special Teams 2 - PK And Neutral Zone Basics

Submitted by JeepinBen on April 11th, 2012 at 8:48 PM

Hockey Special Teams 2: The Neutral Zone and Penalty Kill

In honor of the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting tonight, here’s Volume 2. I saw the Wings utilize both the Umbrella PP and the Diamond PK, so I was inspired to write tonight.

For the first diary in this series, look here:

As was covered previously, there are many situations that can lead to a power play during a hockey game:

Any excuse for a SlapShot Clip

The job of the penalty kill is simple:

1.       Don’t let the puck into your zone

2.       If the puck gets in your zone, get it out ASAP

3.       If the other team possesses the puck in your zone, keep it out of the middle and get it out of your zone ASAP.

In this Diary I’m going to talk mostly about the neutral zone, only some about in zone formations. I mentioned that the obvious advantage of a powerplay is the extra man. The advantages of the defense are that 1, you can ice the puck with no penalty to kill time and 2, you can just focus on defense.

2 may seem obvious, but it’s not. Even-strength hockey is a lot like basketball. It’s a very fluid game, transitions happen instantly, scoring chances are often even, games can be up and down or slow. Suddenly with a penalty, the gameplay turns. There is a defined offense and defense. The offense should score. The defense is trying to stop them. Occasionally the defense scores (anyone have numbers on shorthanded goals per pk vs. defensive touchdowns per drive?) but the main goal is just to stop the offense from scoring. The other thing to keep in mind is the line rules. The offense has to cross the red line to dump the puck (or they ice the puck) and the puck has to cross into the zone before any offensive players do (offsides). The PK can use this to their advantage as I explain below.

In the defensive zone

This is your most common defensive formation. A simple zone box, you try to keep the puck to the perimeter and prevent the offense from getting high quality shots. The arrows above illustrate the coaching adjustment if the Powerplay wants to play an Umbrella (see previous diary). The PK plays a diamond rather than a box. This pressures the QB and wing players and prevents the Umbrella from doing what it wants. If the PK shifts to a diamond, the PP shifts the PP, typically trying to create a 2-on-1 out of the corner.

General PK Bullet that belongs here:

  • On the PK, you play under extreme control. If a defender gets out of position and makes a mistake, goals happen. That said, the PK has to play with controlled aggression. A good PK can dictate play. The easiest way to kill a penalty is to not allow the puck into your zone (segue alert) but importantly, the PK MUST capitalize on any mistake the offense makes. If a pass isn’t crisp, if it’s bobbled, if it’s dribbling off a stick into a corner the penalty killer should attack and ice it ASAP. If the offense is able to repossess the puck, get back into your formation and wait for your next chance.

Neutral Zone Play

Here is where it gets really interesting. Most of Michigan’s Powerplay problems stemmed from 2 things. 1, they didn’t have an elite scoring defenseman (H/T to JimLahey, read his comments on the last diary) and 2, they couldn’t get the puck into the zone. My high school team ran 4 different neutral zone penalty kills. I’m going to (quickly) go over 3 of them. Critical in special teams Neutral Zone Play are the lines. The offense doesn’t want icing or offsides.

The I

We called this the I, just like the football formation (or something). In it when the PP begins their breakout, the first man waits between the tops of the circles and forces the defenseman to move the puck to one side. The second forward waits outside the zone and reads the first and pinches on that pass, trying to disrupt the break out before it reaches the red line. These players have to be patient and react to the breakout.


Again, your players need to be patient. You have 1 on the offensive blue line, 2 on the red line (or a step towards the offensive zone), and one near your own blue line.  Again your front man has to read the breakout, and force it to one side. Once it’s forced the man on the red line steps up before the puck gains the red line. This prevents the offense from chipping it in. Also you always have 2 men back since the man on the weak side should back up and become a defenseman. This formation is beatable though, most simply by sticking an offensive player at center ice. If the man who catches the first pass can make a good touch pass to the man at center, the offense has a 3-on-2 or better. If the PP doesn’t have the passing ability, or a coach who wont adjust his breakout, this formation works like a charm. It was dominant on the high school level, and I just saw the Wings running it tonight.

Four Across

This formation is extremely passive and can give offenses fits. What this formation says is “you’re not carrying the puck into the zone against us. You have to dump it.” By challenging between the red line and defensive blue line, you invite the PP to dump the puck in. If you have fast defensemen, you can bait the offense into dumping it, win the race to the puck, and then ice it. Many pro teams use this to just slow teams down through the neutral zone. This gave Michigan fits, as they didn’t have an elite puck handler a la TJ Hensick who could beat this with the puck on his stick. This makes the offense work to gain possession in the zone, and can wear down a first powerplay unit.

Those are some basic Penalty Kill set ups. Now for some general penalty kill bullets:

·         The Wings ran a bunch of this tonight

I’ve gotten feedback here and on twitter that this has helped some folks already, hope you enjoy the playoffs. I’m a Blackhawks fan, but I’d love to see us meet in the WCF. And hey, I found out that I get CNBC. Who knew?

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

As I showed above, a lot of the formations are a chess match against each other. As I write this the Wings were in an umbrella look while Nashville ran a diamond in the zone. Forced a shot from wide.

·         While on the Penalty Kill, keep the puck out of the middle

At all costs. Let the other team waste all the time they want in the neutral zone or near the walls in your end. Players don’t score from behind the net (often). Players score from the hashmarks. Always defend inside out, and if it’s close, be patient and stay defensive.

·         5-on-3 situations

The typical defensive formation is a rotating triangle. Think the Box, just with 3 guys. Depending on what the offense runs, you’ll have 1 high 2 low, or 2 high 1 low. The triangle should rotate (you rarely recover to the zone you were in, you just keep moving). Ice it and get whistles. From the other diary: 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.

·         From the other diary, still true: A Good goalie can muck all of this up   

A team’s best penalty killer is their goalie. Done. At 7:37 central time they even said this during the Wings game.

  • A note on individual play

If you’re coaching at all, or just watching, watch the front of the net during a PK compared to 5 on 5. In 5 on 5 you often see players tie each other up and wrestle for position. On the PK the defenseman should NOT lock up with the offensive players. You’re already down a man, don’t get stuck and create a 4-on-3 situation.

There’s the PK diary. Again, please ask questions in the comments and add insight to it. A detailed breakdown of Michigan’s struggles will come as I can get the pictures and videos together. Hopefully you’ve got some of the concepts to work with now. 


Sac Fly

April 11th, 2012 at 10:53 PM ^

One huge problem with the Michigan PK, believe it or not, was that Red was using Sparks on the kill. I don't know why that was but it was in a lot of the early season box scores, before we went on the 26 straight run.


April 12th, 2012 at 11:13 AM ^

and not a thing where the PK was about to end and Red just wanted that line on the ice when it was over, then it might have been Red's way of trying to force Sparks to play defense.  Red likes to use the whole first half to do whatever with the PP, PK, lines, just to see if it might work and to throw players into new situations to see how they respond and to prepare them if they need to do that later in the season.


April 12th, 2012 at 9:48 PM ^

PKs and PPs are less mysterious now. The basic responsibilities of the defense to be opportunistic and stay in the called formation are the same in a lot of unequal matchups in sports.