How to Play the Penalty Kill in Hockey

What Is a Penalty Kill in Hockey?

A penalty kill (PK) occurs when a team plays shorthanded for a set amount of time while one of their players is in the penalty box. Playing an effective penalty kill keeps the opposing team from scoring while the other team is one player down. (From the perspective of the opposing team, the situation is called a power play.)

A great penalty kill percentage is more than a coincidence. Good teams dress reliable penalty killers who understand how to play the situation.

Here are some basics to successfully playing penalty kill hockey:

  • Keep an Active Stick: The hockey stick can be a valuable asset when it’s kept on the ice to disrupt the passing lanes.
  • Forecheck: A PK unit that hinders movement through the passing and skating lanes will bog down transitions through the neutral zone.
  • Use Your Body Position: Good penalty killers develop an instinct for placing themselves in a way that will disrupt shooting lanes and turn aside shot attempts.
  • Bump and Run: Play hard and smart, but avoid the “BIG CHECK.” Penalty killers need to harass opponents, keep their feet moving, and pressure the puck without taking themselves out of a play for a few seconds.
  • Maintain a Straight-Line Pursuit: When in the defensive zone, penalty killers should pressure the puck in straight lines. When the pressure is complete, they need to return to their spots quickly, holding the stick out in front.
  • Clear With Authority: When penalty killers have a chance to clear the puck out of the defensive zone, they try to make sure it travels all the way down the ice.
  • Never Let Up: Good penalty killers out-hustle and outwork their opponents. Some power-play units tend to “slack off” a bit with the man-advantage. If that’s the case, penalty killers need to remain aggressive.
  • Play Offense Conservatively: Short-handed goals can quickly turn the momentum of any bench. But scoring chances on the PK should be taken only when a lane is open.
  • Go Straight for Scoring Chances: They are few, but when penalty killers find themselves on a short-handed breakaway, they shouldn’t razzle-dazzle too much. They need to go straight to the net. Attempting too many moves provides a defender a better chance to recover, create a turnover, and possibly force an odd-man rush the other way.
  • Speak Up: Communication among PK units helps to cut down the power-play unit’s time and space.
  • Jump Back In Prepared: When released from the penalty box, players need to understand the flow of the play, step out, and look to contribute immediately.

How to Play on the Penalty Kill: Strategies

Penalty killing formation is dependent upon how the offensive team sets up their powerplay. However, the diamond penalty killing system is one of the most popular strategies because a lot of teams set up their powerplay using an umbrella formation. In the diamond system, of course, defenders set up in a diamond formation: While a high PK forward puts pressure on the power play quarterback, the other forward and a defenseman cover their marks at the top of the two circles, and the low defenseman defends the slot area.

The following is a quick look at three key elements to running a successful PK:

1. Face-Offs

All penalty kills begin with a face-off and an opportunity to gain possession. PK units should always line up tight to the draw so they are positioned to battle for loose pucks.

Defensive zone draws often rely on proper positioning. Teams increase their chances of gaining early possession if they line up according to the center’s “strong side.”

All face-offs are important. Some believe that neutral-zone draws can lead to “lazy positioning,” which happens when defensemen position themselves off the line and cheat toward the defensive zone. The scenario often creates openings on one of the wings and could lead to the opposition gaining control of the puck off the draw.

2. Entry Pressure and Icing on the Penalty Kill

Make a stand at the blue line and deny entry into the defensive zone by forcing the puck carrier into the half boards, or force a dump-and-chase sequence.

Penalty killers who arrest the progress of the power play at the blue line will enhance their chances of gaining possession of a loose puck and clearing it to the far end boards. Icing on the penalty kill will get about 15 seconds taken off the PK, and it allows the short-handed unit an opportunity to change skaters.

3. Defensive Zone Play

With the opposing power-play unit passing along the blue line, down low to begin a cycle, back out to the point to set up another play, the penalty killers hustle from spot to spot in the defensive zone, attempting to contain the pressure.

Some coaches prefer high pressure. Some play back. Others play a combo.

A rule of thumb: If penalty killers can see the eyes of an opponent, they should continue to contain the flow of action. If the defenders see the back of an opponent’s jersey, they should apply full pressure.

Here are other situations when members of a shorthanded unit should maximize their pressure:

  • A player on the power play struggles to control the puck or fails to receive a pass.
  • A player lacks offensive support.
  • A player attempts to stickhandle the puck while skating away from the net.
  • Two linemates attempt to pass the puck along the boards.
  • The possession of the puck is fumbled or is loose via rebound or shots wide of the net.

Learning how to play the penalty kill effectively is a challenging quest. But knowledge is half the battle—and the other half is practice.

With confidence in their penalty killing units, clubs can play more aggressive forechecking systems and initiate physical play without fear of easily surrendering a power-play goal—and possibly momentum of the match.