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Justin Bourne: Confusion key to 5-on-3 success

San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Antti Niemi protect the goal crease from Vancouver's attack. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Antti Niemi protect the goal crease from Vancouver's attack. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

A 5-on-4 power play has some design beyond just passing the puck around and waiting for a chance to shoot: there are some specific shots a team tries to create with puck and player movement. But nothing you cook up on one of those power plays compares to the amount of set plays a team has in mind when it starts a 5-on-3.

In Game 4 of the Western Conference final, the Vancouver Canucks improved their success rate on the two-man advantage to 3-for-6 by scoring three 5-on-3 goals, which made it look like they should’ve been far, far better than their 1-for-9 rate during the regular season.

They cashed in with the two most important tools a team has in that situation: constantly rotating defensemen and one-timers.

Here’s how shooting lanes are opened up by the offense…

All teams (that I’m aware of) kill 5-on-3 penalties the same way - they have two men down low and one up top, usually a forward (but it doesn’t have to be). You have to do that to prevent a 2-on-1 down low, which will lead to a goal the majority of the time.

Because you can’t have the top forward acting like a puppy running back and forth as two guys play catch, the kill works on a pulley system - if the puck goes from D-to-D up top, one of the two guys down low will slide up to challenge the point shot, his partner will slide over and the forward will drop down. You keep doing this back and forth so there’s no shooting lane - everyone has to continually rotate and, while it may sound complex, it should be pretty simple.

Knowing this, the offensive defensemen have to stay active to force those defenders into making tough decisions. If a defenseman himself carries the puck from one side of the zone to the other, the guy challenging him has to follow, which forces the other two guys to rotate. That’s a nice start to confuse the opposition, but it’s not enough. You have to make the puck do some of the work, too.

As that defender pulls the puck from one side to the other, his partner will often drift behind him (while switching sides) and open up for the one-timer, which puts the low defender in a tough spot: does he come out to challenge the shot as well and leave all those guys alone in front? Or does he clear out and let the opposition bomb away from the top of the circle?

It’s important for those defenders to note what way the guys on the other team shoot so they know when there is and isn’t a threat for a one-timer.

The Canucks mixed things up successfully in Game 4. When the puck is down low, it’s usually set to go to one of two places - back up to the point on the same side, or across the net to an open forward at the backdoor. Most coaches discourage passing through your opponent’s triangle on 5-on-3’s unless someone is guaranteed to be open.

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Well, on Sami Salo’s second goal of the game, the Canucks ran a play that left one of their skaters wide open. While the defense rotated up top, the puck was moved down low and Vancouver then knew the Sharks would be looking for one of those two common passes.

But Salo lets himself get lost. In the video, you can see he’s above the neutral zone faceoff dot before he skates into the one-timer. This seemingly innocuous positioning bought Salo time (and power) on what is a nicely designed play. It was his personal hardest shot competition, only with a moving puck (which obviously makes the shot even harder).

There are a million options with the two-man advantage, which is why teams have to decide where they’re most effective - with blasts up top, or dishes down low. The Canucks are ripe with options between their bombs on the point and the Sedins close to the net. Either way, the goal remains the same: keep the penalty-killers switching, guessing and running around and eventually a breakdown will leave a lane wide open.

As long as you keep your defensemen and the puck constantly moving, you force the other team into confusion. With that and two fewer players on the ice, it’s only a matter of time until there’s a scoring opportunity.

The Canucks put on a 5-on-3 clinic in Game 4 and it ended up being the difference. Turns out a little coaching and a lot of practice can go a long way.

Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.

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