How to Be Great on the Power Play
My friend Scott Adams asked as a comment on my post How’s Your Power Play?, “I'd be interested to get your thoughts on the +/- of different PP structures - overload, umbrella, etc. - as well as thoughts on PP personnel - 3F 2D or 4F 1D.” I have given this question a lot of thought over the past two weeks, not because of what the content of the answer might be, but how I will structure my answer. So, I am going to give away “state secrets” here and put all my thoughts about the power play out there.
First, I am going to qualify that much of my approach to the power play comes from being a penalty kill “guy” as a university player. I didn’t get much playing time on the PP at UofT, so there were some games when I would be hoping we’d get a penalty because I knew most of the time I would be first over the boards on the PK. We took a lot of pride in being good at the PK – and we owned it as our main role.
As an over-arching philosophy on the PK (which in turn drives my philosophy on the PP), “the puck can never go into or through the box”. In other words, the worst things that can happen against your PK is that the puck is fed to someone in the middle of the box (in the slot) or the puck travels through the box for a good chance to shoot on a moving goalie.
Second, as regular readers know, I am a little old school when it comes to tactics, systems and general hockey philosophy. So expect that I may sing the praises of the old give and go out of the corner. And, players on the power play need to have an “attack the net” mentality. You can’t be successful on the perimeter. You need to get dirty and get the puck to the net.
Third, I always want to see three excellent scoring chances per power play. And, I don’t care if we have to go retrieve the puck in our end four times, just make sure there are three good chances. There is nothing the PK likes better than a PP who are content to pass the puck around the perimeter and never create any pressure and good scoring chances.
The power play depends greatly on how the penalty kill operates against it. Although it may be a gross simplification, I consider the PK as being either aggressive or static. Obviously, many PK’s are a little of both but let’s, for the sake of simplicity, look at how to play against just those two scenarios.
The aggressive PK seems to create the most havoc on a team’s power play. This is quite simply because most PPs are worked on in practice against no opposition, one or two opposing players, or passive resistance. The PP is typically designed to run a certain system and generate scoring chances from set plays. As soon as the PK gets aggressive and doesn’t let the PP set up and run those set plays, all hell breaks loose. To remedy this, I run a lot of 5 on 4 scrimmage in practice with the PK playing aggressively like it is 5 on 5. My instruction to my offensive players? 1) Get close to the puck carrier and support. 2) Take the pressure and “sloop” the puck off. 3) When you get the puck, your first stride is to the net. In other words, there needs to be close support of the puck. There should be short passes to that support while taking the pressure of the defensive player, and as soon as a player gets the puck the first thing they should do is go to the net. Often there will be secondary pressure but then the same should happen again. We have to remember that the PP has a man advantage so there should always be a way to set up a 2v1 somewhere in the offensive zone.
I am not going to go into the details of each PP structure here – it’s nothing different than what most teams will run but I will outline when and where I like to use each of the following: behind the net, overload from the corner, 1-3-1 and the umbrella.
Against a static, traditional box type PK, I try to build from the back of the net out. The 1990-91 University of Guelph men’s team ran a terrific PP from behind the net (it made a huge impression on me trying to coach against them) and I have always marveled that teams don’t run this much more. Simply, the puck carrier stops directly behind the net looking to feed any of the four teammates in the slot for a one timer chance on net. Ultimately what happens is that it takes two defencemen to cover the one man behind the net because he can move the puck out from either side (defenders typically play the two posts). That leaves a 4v2 situation in the slot for the puck carrier to hit a teammate for a one timer – which is being directed at a goalie who is moving focus from behind the net quickly to the front. It seems to be a no brainer to create chances and most goalie coaches who I talk to agree that for goalies it can be a nightmare.
Seriously, when was the last time you saw someone try to run a give and go out of the corner on a PP? It is a classic play and it works very well for younger players who tend not to have the shot velocity to make plays from the point. I always add a “behind the net” play to the give and go in case there is no outlet to an open defenceman on the point. Obviously, this is a classic “overload” structure with options to the blue line and intent to create a 2v1 or 3v2 on one side of the box.
To my mind, the next piece of the puzzle on the PP is to run a 1-3-1. Some great advantages to this system: it doesn’t rely on a shot from the point, you can easily use four forwards and one defenceman, there is good net front presence with four players converging on chances and shots, and there is good coverage with three players on puck recovery in the corners. Three keys to this structure working? A good shooter in the middle of the box (slot), players going to the net with the puck when there is space and seams, and good screening of the goaltender and net front play.
Finally, the umbrella is a variation of the 1-3-1 but I am always under the impression that the two players on the flanks are there to shoot and pass rather than go to the net and create chances. They become outlet passes rather than real threats (unless you are Ovechkin and can whistle the one timer in the top corner from outside the dot). To my mind, unless you have shooters from the point who can create havoc with the velocity of their shot, then the best reason to throw the puck back to the point is to spread out the PK and create some seems into and through the box.
At the end of the day, the power play MUST create scoring chances. If it has difficulty doing that then it is simply not doing its job. Get the puck to the net and get dirty. Or as former NHL coach Tom Watt used to say, “take the tuxedos off and put on the work clothes!”