What Is a Powerplay in Hockey? Hockey Powerplays Explained

Posted on February 26, 2024 by Dan Kent
power play

Have you ever heard the phrase powerplay in hockey and wondered what that means? And how does it happen? I'm going to lay it out in plain English in this article.

What is a power play in hockey?

A power play is when one team has more players on the ice than the other team. This happens when a penalty is called, and a player is sent off for an infraction – which means they're excluded from the game for a specific amount of time, depending on the severity of the penalty. 

The team on a power play has more players on the ice, while the defending team is 'shorthanded' with fewer active players. 

What happens during a powerplay in hockey?

During a power play, the offending team's player is sent to the penalty box for a period determined by the referees (more on that below.) During this time, the advantaged team on the power play will have one extra man per penalty on the ice. The faceoff is taken to the advantaged team's offensive zone.

In the event of multiple penalties, a team can only go down to 3 players, meaning if a team takes 3 or 4 penalties, they will not play with just 1 or 2 players on the ice. When a team is down to three players, they often call this the 5-on-3 or two-man advantage.

During a powerplay, the team with more players usually has more control of the puck and the ice. They have fewer opposing players, which gives them more space and a higher chance of shooting on the net and scoring.

What causes a power play in hockey?

A power play is caused by a team committing an infraction in a game. For the most part, when a team or player breaks specific rules in hockey, they are penalized, and the other team goes on a power play.

An example of a penalty would be a player high-sticking another player or a team having too many men on the ice. Additionally, coaches can get penalties served by the player for being aggressive to the referees or linesman.

How long is a power play in hockey?

Power plays can be 2, 4, or potentially even 5 minutes, depending on the type of infraction.

Minor penalty

A minor penalty is two minutes long, and the name gives away the severity of the penalty. Minor penalties include hooking, interference, too many men on the ice, or tripping.

Double minor penalty

A double minor is four minutes long and can be for various reasons. In the NHL, a minor penalty is typically called if a player is high sticked. However, a 4-minute double minor will be assessed if that player is bleeding.

A player could also be issued a double minor penalty for roughing. Even though it is typically a 2-minute minor penalty, the ref can call a double minor if it is more severe.

Five minute major

A five-minute major penalty is reserved for the worst infractions on the ice. In this situation, the penalized player has often committed an offence that has injured or has the potential to hurt a player severely. 

For example, a five-minute major for hooking or too many men on the ice is non-existent. However, checking someone from behind into the boards or delivering an elbow or body check directly to the head will result in a five-minute major if the refs feel it is justified.

The penalty shot

The penalty shot is a unique type of penalty in hockey. A penalty shot occurs when a player is interfered with or obstructed when they are on a breakaway or partial breakaway. If the ref determines that the player was impeded to the point where he could not get a shot off, a penalty shot will be called.

This type of penalty is called to discourage players from taking blatant penalties to prevent goals when players are on breakaways.

Game misconduct

Although game misconducts are the most severe penalty, it does not result in the offending team being shorthanded.

The penalty is ten minutes long, forcing the player to sit out of the action for this long.

Remember, a player assessed a game misconduct can also be assessed a major penalty. This phrase is often referred to as "5 and a game." 

When does a power play end in hockey?

The player serving the penalty must stay inside the penalty box until the penalty duration has expired or the team on the powerplay has scored. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Let's go over them.

When does a minor penalty end?

A minor penalty ends when the two minutes run off the clock or the team on the power play scores. Alternatively, when co-incidental minors are called, meaning both teams get a two-minute penalty simultaneously, the penalties end only when the two minutes are up.

When does a double minor penalty end?

A double minor penalty ends when either the four minutes run off the clock or the team on the power play scores in the final two minutes of the power play. If they score in the first two minutes of the power play, the clock is reduced to two minutes, and the team still holds the power play.

An example of this would be a double minor for high sticking. Suppose the team scores a minute into the four-minute power play. In that case, the offending player remains in the box, and the penalty is adjusted down to 2 minutes. If they score again, the player can leave the box.

For those new to the game, it's best to think of a double minor as two two-minute power plays. If a goal is scored in either of those, the clock is adjusted to one left, or the player is let out of the box if it is the second half of the double minor.

When does a major penalty end?

A major penalty ends only when the five minutes run off the clock or the game ends. If a team scores a powerplay goal during a five-minute major penalty, the player still has to remain in the box. 

This means that teams can score as many goals as possible during a five-minute power play and remain on the power play until the clock runs out.

What are powerplay points in hockey?

Power play points are points accumulated by NHL players that are awarded during a powerplay. If a player is awarded a point during 5 on 5, or "even strength" play, it is an even-strength point, not a power play point.

Power Play Goals

When a team with more players on the ice scores a goal, it is known as a powerplay goal. Many goals are scored in powerplay situations as the team can keep possession of the puck and have more scoring chances.

What does being shorthanded in hockey mean?

When a team takes a penalty, they are known to be shorthanded, the opposite of being on a power play. They must wait down the clock and defend to kill the penalty.

Sometimes the team with fewer players, known as the shorthanded team, will score a goal. This is less common and less likely, but it does occur. If the shorthanded team scores a goal, the offending player must remain in the penalty box, unlike when a team on the power play scores.

In some cases, a player will commit an infraction on purpose as a way to mitigate a scoring opportunity. Taking a penalty is preferable to being scored against. Hockey commentators often call this type of penalty a 'good penalty'.

What is a good power play percentage in hockey?

Typically, you will see a power play percentage hover in the 20-25% range to be considered top ten in the league. However, the Edmonton Oilers have been leaps and bounds ahead of their competition in the last few years, routinely posting power play percentages in the high twenties and even low thirties in 2022/2023.

The Edmonton Oilers are contending with the Montreal Canadiens regarding the best powerplay efficiency in NHL history. It will be interesting to see if they can add themselves to the record books at the end of the 2022/2023 season.

Power play strategies

When an NHL team is on a power play, they often play several rehearsed set pieces to maximize their scoring chances. Examples of power play tactics include the spread, umbrella, 1-2-2, 1-3-3, 1-3-1 power play, and so on (source). The goal of which is to:

  • Get the puck into the proper scoring position.
  • Setting up tactical moves to outpace the opponents.
  • Creating more shot opportunities
  • Being in a position to score on rebounds or missed shots.
  • To dominate and outmaneuver the shorthanded team.

Because the team has extra players on the ice, you will often see them overload particular areas, such as the front of the net or the corners. You will also see more passes across the middle of the ice resulting in one-timers due to the shorthanded team being unable to cover as much ice with fewer players.

Shorthanded Tactics

The shorthanded team has fewer men on the ice, so their main task is to play a more defensive game and stop the opposing team from having scoring chances.

Penalty killers will position closer to their net to defend it with fewer players. They will only break toward the opposing net if there is a clear way forward. Two prevalent strategies among penalty killers are the box and the diamond.

Penalty Kill

In most cases, the pressure of the opposing team will force them to fire the puck out of their zone and across the ice as far as possible.

The shorthanded team has one thing to their advantage during this situation. They are allowed to ice the puck. 

That is to shoot it across the center line and the opposite goal line without it being touched (in standard play, this would be an icing infraction resulting in a faceoff).

However, while shorthanded, many coaches have been modifying their strategies to put higher-level offensive talents on the ice. This does a few things. For one, it makes the power play team a little more cautious with the puck because while traditionally, you will face defensive-style players with little offensive upside on the penalty kill, now you have offensive players who can make you pay for getting tricky.

A prime example would be the Edmonton Oilers putting their superstars on the ice for the penalty kill in 2022/2023, resulting in them scoring the most shorthanded goals on the season.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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