What Is a Power Play in Ice Hockey?

Dmitry Kulikov #7 of the Florida Panthers defends against Reilly Smith #18 of the Boston Bruins during a first period power play at the BB&T Center on March 9, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida.
Joel Auerbach / Getty Images

The power play in ice hockey may be a source of some confusion for spectators new to the sport. Simply put, the power play happens when one or two players on one team are sent to the penalty box—that is, are obliged to leave the ice for some period of time—thus giving the other team a one- or two-man advantage. 

The power play situation exists for either two minutes or five minutes. The two-minute penalty is the result of a minor infraction, while the five-minute penalty is imposed for those infractions deemed major according to the rules

'Play' vs. 'Power Play'

The name "power play" itself causes newcomers some confusion. Consider that a "play" in hockey has the same general meaning that it has in most sports—the moves a team makes to advance its position and, when possible, to score over the other team. But in ice hockey, "power play" is a slightly different concept. It's the situation itself—when a team has a one- or two-man advantage—that's called "power play," not the moves that the team with the player advantage makes during the period when that advantage exists.

What Ends the Power Play

For a minor, or two-minute penalty, the power play ends when the penalty time expires, when the team with the advantage scores, or when the game itself ends. If two players are in the penalty box, a goal by opposing team releases only the first player penalized. If the penalty is a major, or five-minute penalty, the power play ends only after the five minutes expire or the game ends. A goal does not end a major penalty. 

If the short-handed team scores a goal, the penalty does not end, whether it's a major or minor penalty.

Power Play Tactics

Many books, articles, blogs, and coaches' strategy sessions have been devoted to the intricacies of power play tactics, each with its own colorful (and for newcomers, inscrutable) name: the Umbrella, 1-2-2, 11-3-3, the Spread, and so on. The details of these tactics are complex, but their purposes are the same:

  • Getting the puck into scoring position
  • Creating player placement dynamics that pick apart defense strategies 
  • Setting up tactical moves that play on the defense's lack of one or more players
  • Creating either quality shot opportunities or as many shot opportunities as possible (strategists differ on which of these approaches is best.)
  • Creating follow-up scoring opportunities after missed shots 

During the power play, the short-handed team is allowed to ice the puck—that is, shoot it across the center line and the opposing team's goal line without it being touched. When the teams are at full strength, icing is an infraction.