It’s tough enough to survive a penalty kill when your team has one player in the box. But when your team has two players in the box, the other team has a huge scoring opportunity. Being shorthanded in a 5-on-3 isn’t a reason to put up the white flag and surrender. No! Finding ways to diminish their two-man advantage is job one, and if your team is able to survive a 5-on-3 penalty kill, you just may be able to change the momentum of the game.

Here are six key ingredients to successfully surviving the 5-on-3 penalty kill:

  1. Win your faceoffs. Chances are, if they’re 5-on-3, the faceoff will be in your zone from the very start of your penalty kill and what you want to avoid is having their 5 players skating circles around your 3. The best way to avoid that is by winning your faceoffs, and you do that if you…
  2. Send in your best center. Which of your players consistently wins faceoffs? Send in that player and let them know they’re going in to win the faceoff and to get the puck back into the corner. That’s where your defencemen have the best chance of getting and controlling the puck, and shooting it down the ice, deep into their zone to…
  3. Ice the puck. Which of your defensemen can see the openings? When you’re 3 and they’re 5, it’s hard to see open paths to their zone, especially since your players will have a fraction of a second to make a decision of what they should do with the puck once they have it. You’ll also need to
  4. Send your best defensemen out. If they can shoot the puck down the ice and into the offensive zone or use the boards to get the puck out, they’re the ones you want on the ice to give your team a chance. It’s a lot of work to survive a 5-on-3 penalty kill and you’ll want to make sure they
  5. Don’t waste energy. Once the puck is in their zone, your players need to preserve their energy, so they can move into the neutral zone but they shouldn’t go much further. They will be overpowered soon enough, finding themselves back in the defensive zone once again, where they need to try to get the puck out as quickly as they can, and to do that, they’ll need energy to…
  6. Force them to the boards. When the play moves back into your zone, your players should dominate the middle of the ice, forcing the other team towards the boards. This will give the attackers the least amount of opportunity possible for shots on goal. And your team may even get lucky where an errant shot can give your forward a breakaway — and a scoring opportunity. _/ . \_

Knowing the Rules

Perhaps a 5-on-3 is a coach’s worst nightmare and that may be the reason one of the great coaches of the game, Roger Neilson, spent so much time studying the rules of hockey. Neilson (1934-2003) coached hockey for over six decades and for 8 different NHL teams and was famous for using the rule book to his team’s advantage. Neilson was also a noted innovator of the game for using tools like video and headsets (his nickname was “Captain Video”) but his innovations extended beyond tools. He had an ability to look differently at the game and he found loopholes in the rules that frustrated his opponents and, in fact, ended up forcing some important rule changes.

For example, debris landing on the ice used to only merit a stoppage of play, without penalty. Neilson, looking for a way to give his team a breather when they were short handed, threw hockey sticks on the ice which would prompt the ref to blow his whistle, stopping the play. He tried other tactics too: in the last two minutes of a game, if his team was on a 5-on-3 penalty kill, Neilson would send extra men out onto the ice every ten seconds, causing stoppages of play designed to give his defensemen a breather. That too is no longer allowed. Now, unnecessary stoppages of play –or too many men on the ice — net a penalty shot for the team on the power play.

Neilson did other clever things, like pulling the goalie but making him leave his stick on the ice, across the crease, so if the other team got possession of the puck and shot it down the ice, the abandoned stick just might stop the puck from going in.

…Which is also no longer allowed. (But what a trick that was! Dang!)

A bachelor to the end who was consumed with coaching, Neilson, sadly, never won a Stanley Cup. But the teams he coached got consistently better, and one of them, the New York Rangers, won the Cup the year after his departure.

Sending Up the White Flag

Roger Neilson and the birth of towel power.

Roger Neilson waving the white flag

Towel power is a tradition that Neilson is responsible for creating. While coaching for the Vancouver Canucks and unhappy with a series of penalties in a 1982 Western Conference Final game against the Chicago Blackhawks, a frustrated Neilson decided to display his anger at the ref by putting up the white flag in mock surrender to referee Bob Myers.

Tying a white towel to a the end of a hockey stick, Neilson waved the stick, and the towel, over his head, and was quickly joined by other players on the bench in a sign of solidarity, protesting Myer’s calls. Neilson was ejected.

When the series got back to Vancouver, the Canucks’ fans were armed with white towels, both at the airport when they came out to welcome the team home, and in the next game against the Hawks. The playoff tradition of towel power was born. The Canucks won the series and went on to play against the New York Islanders who beat them in 4 games straight to win the 1982 Stanley Cup.

Neilson, it should be noted, was given many accolades for his work in hockey including an honorary Doctorate of Laws from his alma mater, McMaster University; was made a member of the Order of Canada, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. A native of Ontario, Neilson last coached in Ottawa for the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and even though he wasn’t the head coach there, we was given the head coach’s job for two games so he could hit the 1,000 games mark as a coach. After his death from cancer, the Ottawa Senators Foundation helped to create Roger’s House, an 8-bed palliative care facility for children with progressive life limiting illnesses, in honour of Neilson. You can learn more about how to donate here or by going to the Ottawa Senators Foundation website.


If you’re able to get out of a 5-on-3 unscathed, you may find your team breathes a collective sigh of relief and finds their feet once again. If they do, you just might discover there’s been a momentum swing, and if that happens, don’t count your team out. As long as there’s time on the clock, there are scoring opportunities that can be made.