Power Play Strategies in Hockey

Coach and players

Seconds apart, Boston Bruins teammates Cal Gardner and Hal Laycoe were issued minor penalties during an NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens on November 5, 1955.

Power play strategies in hockey were about to change—dramatically.

Future Hall-of-Famer Jean Beliveau scored three times, off three Bert Olmstead assists, during a rule-altering 44-second span.

At the time, NHL teams on a minor power play could score as many times as possible, similar to the modern major penalty regulation. The 1955-56 Canadiens, led by Beliveau, took full advantage, often scoring multiple goals during two-minute power plays.

The Canadiens went on to capture the Stanley Cup championship. Beliveau earned the Art Ross Trophy after collecting 88 regular-season points, and won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player for the first of two times in his career. Their overwhelming success was a focus of a rule change that offseason.

Former NHL President Clarence Campbell unveiled new legislation, stating skaters serving a minor penalty can return to the ice proceeding a power-play goal.

Of the Original Six teams who voted on the legislation, only the Canadiens voted against the proposal.

What Is a Power Play in Hockey?

A power play is a situation when one team gets called for an on-ice infraction, and the offending player is sent to the penalty box, creating a man-advantage situation. Rules allow for up to two teammates simultaneously serving time in the box, resulting in 5-on-3 opportunities.

Coaches underscore the importance of remaining aggressive on power plays. The importance of competing with a ‘man-down’ mentality has only grown as puck possession continues to develop as a trendy influence on today’s game.

Effective power-play units often make a huge impact on the majority of matches.

Here are three basic tips to add strength to your team’s power-play formations:

  • Keep the puck and your skates moving.
  • Avoid over-stickhandling the puck.
  • Limit making long passes.

Four Power Play Strategies

All NHL clubs employ elements of four power play systems: the Umbrella, the Overload, the 1-3-1, and the Spread.

The four primary power play formations look different, and efficient units can rotate a variety of setups to keep the penalty killers guessing.

1. The Umbrella

Its main concept is to outman penalty killers in the slot areas so the high forward and two defensemen can move the puck around the offensive zone and attempt shots.

Two of the most important tactics behind a successful Umbrella power play involve players moving the puck to the middle of the ice for slap shots from the point, and working the puck along the half-boards for another option at the point.

The Umbrella features three skaters positioned near the blue line and two forwards stationed near the goal crease to fight for rebounds and screen goalies. It also guards against turnovers and shorthanded breakaways.

2. The Overload

Employed by units with playmakers, the Overload system calls for skilled skaters to cycle the puck continuously to create havoc among the defenders.

Forwards are focused on overwhelming opponents along the half boards. With consistent movement down low, the Overload is designed to create and take advantage of defensive openings.

Also known as the 1-2-2, the power play overload depends on constant cycling and motion. The trouble with the setup, however, is with so much motion, players sometimes don’t generate a lot of shots and become prone to turnovers.

3. The 1-3-1

By creating four triangles to pass to and look for one-time slappers, this versatile formation can be quarterbacked from either the point, half boards, or below the goal line. When executed correctly, the defense tends to focus on the middle portions of the ice, which widens the penalty killers’ space to defend.

The 1-3-1 was initially showcased in Europe before the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning adopted the philosophy during the 2010-11 season, thriving with a stable of playmakers who possessed abilities to forecheck relentlessly, score off one-timers, and backcheck fiercely.

The 1-3-1 power play is effective at creating mismatches, but with only one blueline defender, power play units could be exposed to fast breaks the other way.

4. The Spread

Also known as the 2-1-2 formation, the Spread attempts to draw defenders from the blue line as the attacking unit attempts to overpower the slot area with forwards, overloading the crease area.

With the blue line vacated, defensemen ideally will discover more time and space to make a play, taking a slap shot, or look backdoor for a pass to an undefended forward.

The Spread remains the go-to formation in 5-on-3 situations. But squads with strong forwards, who can muscle their way into a position to crash the net and screen the goalie, have found success during single-man advantages.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Hockey Power Play Strategies

All power play systems have strengths and weaknesses, and coaches make sure the players work on the fundamentals with a variety of power play drills.

The longtime keys to successful power play strategies remain understanding each player’s role, the constant movement of pucks and skates, pressuring defenders to move out of position, and creating odd-man opportunities.

Beliveau and Co. accomplished so much, so often during the 1955-56 season, NHL officials were forced to alter power play strategies in hockey—dramatically.