The Finer Points: the penalty kill

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

Last week we took a look at the power play and how different set ups work for teams with different strengths. This week we’ll look at the other half of special teams, the penalty kill.

We’ll examine the different penalty killing strategies and which are effective against certain power play set ups.

The most important thing to remember when killing a penalty is keeping your head on a swivel and being aware of everything happening around you. Power play formations can shift or change in an instant leaving a player wide open with a great scoring chance if the penalty killers all get caught watching the puck carrier. Just about every back door goal scored on the power play is a result of the players in charge of guarding the crease watching the puck and failing to notice the attacker moving in behind them.

Once again, we’ll use videos from Jeremy Weiss to explain the strategies in greater detail. These videos and more can be found on his website, Weiss Tech Hockey.


The diamond is used against teams with a really good power play quarterback and teams that set up in the umbrella formation on the power play. The diamond is set up with one defenseman guarding the crease, one forward and one defenseman patrolling the inside of the faceoff circle and one forward in the center of the zone. This strategy can be either aggressive or passive.

When aggressive, the penalty killers attack the players on the point as all three players on the top of the diamond can easily reach their counterpart on the power play, attempting to force them into making a mistake. They have to make sure to force a mistake or block a shot because is they’re up high, that leaves a 2-on-1 situation right in front of the net should a shot sneak through.

When passive, the whole unit collapses, forcing the defense to try to get shots through. This is tricky due to the high concentration of stick and shin pads in the way, especially from the side boards where there are always two penalty killers square to the shooter.


The box works best against the overload and it’s usually passive, allowing the attacking team to keep possession of the puck, but keeping them confined to the corner or along the wall. Two defensemen cover the slot and two forwards covering the faceoff circles, just above the hash marks, staying on the inside of the circle.

The goal of the box is to always have two skaters square to the puck carrier. The defenseman on the attacking side is free to make an aggressive move should they see an opportunity, but it’s important the other hold their ground and watch for the backdoor play. Remember, the overload is about cycling, making quick passes and attempting to set up that perfect play. The goal of the box is to eliminate that perfect play and keep the power play unit cycling, effectively killing off their own man advantage.

Wedge +1

The wedge +1 is a highly aggressive penalty kill that often springs shorthanded rushes and scoring chances.

The formation features two defensemen and a forward creating a tight triangle in front of the crease, clearing traffic and watching for any backdoor plays.

The other forward skates along the perimeter, attacking the puck carrier and creating chaos wherever possible. They are constantly in motion, so if one of the players in the triangle manages to gain possession of the puck, they can hit the forward in stride for a breakaway opportunity.


A 5-on-3 is extremely difficult to kill off since there are always at least two odd-man situations out there on the ice.

The most common formation is the rotating triangle, which is pretty much the wedge +1 without the +1. The object is to keep the formation tight and to have the point of the triangle facing the puck carrier. But there is only so much a formation can do, so killing off a 5-on-3 is up to the group of players on the ice. The coach has to pick the players with the best combination of faceoff prowess, speed, strength and, most importantly, anticipation and hockey smarts.

A great example of how to kill off a 5-on-3 came in the 2008 Stanley Cup final. The Detroit Red Wings were on top of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in the series and the game when midway through the third period of Game 4 Kirk Maltby was called for hooking, followed 34 seconds later by an interference call to Andreas Lilja.

Henrik Zetterberg was called upon to be the forward and as you can see from this video, almost single-handedly killed of the penalties. He kept his head on a swivel, got his stick into passing lanes and his level of anticipation was extraordinary, especially when he managed to tie up Sidney Crosby’s stick seconds before the penguins captain had a backdoor chance that would have tied the game. This penalty killing effort by Zetterberg allowed the Wings to go up 3-1 in a series they would win in six games and would earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

*Editor’s Note: Hockey is a very fast-paced game and the large number of sometimes-complicated rules can make it hard to follow for a casual/new viewer. The Finer Points is a weekly column that will explain the subtleties and complexities of hockey in an easy-to-understand manner so fans can spend more time enjoying the game and less time trying to figure out what is going on.  

Is there a facet of the game that has you scratching your head? Send an email to


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