The Different Penalty Kill Formations That The Chicago Blackhawks Use

This is the second piece in my series on the Chicago Blackhawks Penalty Kill. My first post took a look at the shot location of every power play goal the Blackhawks PK unit gave up this season. In this post, I aim to teach you about the two main formations Chicago uses when they’re a man down. I aim to cover the basics now so I can breakdown individual penalty kills later

When on the penalty kill, the main objective is to get the puck out of the defensive zone. If the opponent has the puck in the zone, they can score. If the puck is out of the zone, the opponent cannot score. Therefore, it’s very important to clear the puck out of the zone and attempt to keep it out of the zone. The second objective is to limit shot attempts, especially high quality shots coming in the slot, near the goalie.To accomplish those objectives, “pressure” will play a big role. The term pressure is used to describe how aggressive or passive a penalty kill unit is and that plays a big role in tactics. The penalty kill is all about determining when and where to pressure and how much to pressure to apply.

An aggressive, high pressure penalty kill unit is more likely to create turnovers and clear the puck. However, pressuring too much could leave players out of position, leading to a high danger shot. 

Playing conservatively with low pressure should result in the team being in good position to limit high danger chances. However, with low pressure, it will be difficult to create turnovers and clear the puck. Therefore, the opposing power play will have plenty of offensive zone time and be able to take plenty of shots against a conservative penalty kill.

A quick recap

Penalty Kill – equals positioning and pressure.

Aggressive PK – Clears the puck & limits shot totals but possibly gives up more high danger chances.

Conservative PK – Limits high danger chances but harder to clear the puck & thus allows more overall shot totals.

The following is an excerpt from Hockey Plays and Strategies by Ryan Walter and Mike Johnston that describes pressure better than I ever could.

While in the defensive zone, the penalty-killing unit moves from “active contain” to “contain pressure” to “all-out pressure.” This is based on the reads of when to pressure. Every coach will have a varying degree of pressure he is comfortable with. Some coaches make a simple rule for their players to read when to press and when not to press. The rule is called “eyes” and “backsides.” If your player sees that the opposing player with the puck is looking directly at them they move into a more passive “containing” mode. If the player see an opponent’s “backside or number” then they apply maximum pressure. Obviously when a player is turned to get the puck and not facing mid-ice (backside and numbers) he is not ready to make a play and therefore can be pressured harder. Remember, once one player moves to pressure, each subsequent pass must be pressured. The penalty killers should assert more pressure when they know the puck carrier will have a difficult time controlling the puck and making a good play. Here are some examples:

  • the PP has poor control or a player juggles a pass,
  • the player with the puck has no immediate support,
  • the player with the puck has his back turned to the net,
  • the puck is being rimmed from one player to another along the boards,
  • there is a loose puck from a rebound or missed shot,
  • the ice conditions are poor late in the period

Now that we know how important “pressure” is, let’s go in depth about the two main formations you might see Chicago in.

The Box

You’ll never guess what formation the four penalty killers take in the “box” formation. Wait a minute, did you say a square? Yeah, it’s a square. Let’s take a look at a couple times Chicago used the box Penalty Kill this season.

 
As you can see, the PK unit forms a 2-2 box in front of the goalie. This is one of the more passive Penalty Kill formations. The unit forms a tight knit box with the strategy of keeping the puck to the outside. With four penalty killers grouped right in front of the goalie, it’s tough for the opponent to get in the slot. The players normally won’t break formation too often unless there is a loose puck. If the puck goes to the left side board, the whole box shifts to the left in unison. If the puck goes to the right side board, the whole box shifts to the right. This formation keeps players positionally sound with less movement and less switching.

This type of formation forces the opponent to take low percentage shots from the outside. The tight box in slot the forces the opponents PP to pass back and forth from the point to the side boards before eventually settling for a far away, low quality shot.

With a low amount of pressure, this PK formation won’t create many turnovers. The opposing PP unit will be able to control the zone and have plenty of time and space on the outside. Remember how objective one on the penalty kill is to clear the puck? When a PK unit clears the puck, that kills around 20+ seconds of an 120 second power play. To clear the puck, there usually needs to be some form of pressure and turnovers. The passive box doesn’t create many turnovers. The PK unit basically sits back and waits for the opponent to shoot. The unit then hopes a skater blocks it or the goalie makes the save and the puck can be cleared or the goalie freezes it.

Recap: 

The Box – A passive square PK formation

Positives – Limits high danger chances and keeps shots to the outside.

Negatives – Doesn’t create many turnovers allowing the power play with more space, time, and shooting opportunities. Relies on the opponent making a mistake instead of forcing the opponent to make a mistake.

How have the Blackhawks performed when utilizing the box?

The box allows for shots from the outside, especially the point. Chicago has given up goals off point shots that find there way through with goalie screens from multiple players. Chicago has also given up some rebound goals coming from point shots. To clean this up, the forwards need to get in the shooting lane to prevent the shooter from taking the shot or preventing the puck from getting through. The defensemen need to tie up the opponents if the puck does get through so Crawford can find the puck and freeze it.

The Wedge +1

This formation has three skaters form a triangle down low and one forward pressuring the puck. The Wedge +1 is more of an aggressive penalty kill formation. Remember how the box is 4 skaters protecting the slot? Well here, the three skaters in the triangle protect the slot while the 4th skater pressures the outside. Here are some examples of Chicago setup in this formation from this season.

 
This formation isn’t as stagnant as the box as many players can switch positions. If the high (+1) forward is Marian Hossa and he is pressuring on the left side and the puck goes to the other side of the ice, it wouldn’t make sense for Hossa to skate all the way over from one side board to the other. This is where the forwards would switch. Let’s say Jonathan Toews is the triangle forward. Toews is now closer to the puck, and will become the pressuring (+1) forward. Hossa would then take the forward spot on the triangle.

The point is that there are many rotations in the Wedge +1. The pressuring forward won’t always be the pressuring forward. The forwards switch depending on who’s closer to the puck. If the puck goes into the corner, a defensemen might pressure while the two forwards and other defensemen from the triangle in front of the slot.

With more rotations and switching than the box, the Wedge +1 requires good communication. Not talking could result in two forwards aggressively pressuring, leaving the middle of the ice open for a cross ice one timer. Think of defending the pick and roll in basketball. Both defenders need to be in good position and need to communicate as they might switch who they are guarding. If both defenders go after the ball carrier, the player rolling to the basket is wide open. Good communication is needed to know when to switch or not. This relates well to the hockey penalty Kill where communication and awareness on switches are key. 

With three players protecting the slot instead of four, there are more opportunities for the power play to run backdoor plays and get some high quality shots in the slot. Poor rotations and too much pressure from the +1 forward could also result in mistakes and giving up high danger chances.

The risk of giving up more dangerous shots is rewarded by the ability to create turnovers and clear the puck. In a passive box, the opponent has plenty of time to run what they want to as there is no one pressuring the outside. In the Wedge +1, there is a forward creating havoc on the outside. The power play doesn’t have as much time and space to operate with a penalty kill forward aggravating them. This aggressive play allows the penalty kill to force the power play to make mistakes, create more turnovers, and be able to clear the puck out.

When ran well, the “wedge plus one” can help clear the puck and thus limit the total number of power play shots. Another benefit of the high forward is offense. In the box, all four skaters are low. If there is a turnover, there isn’t much of a chance for a breakaway. With a high forward, there is more of an opportunity to create a breakaway scoring chance. Also, the power play unit is usually full of offensive players who may not be the best defensively. Modern day power play units often use 4-forwards and 1-defensemen as well. So if Jonathan Toews is the high, pressuring forward and he creates a turnover, he might have a 1-on-1 breakaway where sometimes all he has to beat is a forward. Yes, the penalty kill formation can be used to create goals as well as suppress them. Jonathan Toews, for example, had four goals last season coming while he was on the penalty kill.

Every Wedge +1 is not the same, coaches can make small tweaks here or there. There can be a passive or aggressive Wedge +1 depending on what the coach wants. For example, there is a more aggressive version known as the “Czech Press” where the high forward aggressively pressures the point man and presses down when the puck carrier is alongside the boards. A more passive Wedge +1 could see the high forward putting low pressure on the puck carry. Instead of attacking the puck, the high forward may be only focused on getting into the shooting or passing lanes, but never full out pressuring the puck.

Recap:

Wedge +1 – Formation where three low skaters form a triangle while the high forward pressures the puck.
Advantages – Forcing the opponent to make mistakes, creating turnovers, and clearing the puck. Limits total number of shots. Can lead to shorthanded scoring opportunities.

Negatives – Could allow more high danger slot chances with only three low skaters. Requires good communication. When ran poorly, it could result in players being out of position.

How has Chicago performed when using this formation?

I feel they do better when they are more aggressive. They recently did well in a game against Toronto. The PK was more aggressive and was able to clear the puck often before Toronto could get setup. The Blackhawks did give up a power play goal to William Nylander on a cross ice one timer. On that play shown below, Hossa was the high forward. Matthews receives the puck and Toews skates towards him becoming the pressuring forward. In this case, Hossa needs to get back to the triangle and get in the cross ice passing lane. Hossa does not hustle back, the passing lane was open, and the result was a cross ice one timer. Hossa had a really bad game vs Toronto, so I imagine he’s probably still injured and not 100%. 


Chicago has also had some problems with communication from the rookies like Tyler Motte. Marcus Kruger and Motte have never played with each other before. So when they are on the PK unit together, they might get crossed up when switching with both players going to the triangle or both players pressuring. With time, the new players should be able to build better chemistry and know what the other is going to do. 

So when watching the Blackhawks PK this season, watch to see if the skaters are forming a square or a triangle plus one. When in the triangle plus one, watch to see how much pressure the high forward is applying, watch for the rotations between the +1, & if the triangle can keep skaters from entering the slot. When in the box, watch to see if the skaters are getting in the shooting lanes, blocking shots, and tying up the net front presence to prevent rebound shots. 

On the penalty kill, most of the responsibility relies on the skaters and a little bit of luck. The goaltender needs to have good positioning and prevent rebounds, but overall, the success of the penalty Kill is about limiting shot quality and keeping the puck out of the zone. This is why the type of formation a team runs and amount of pressure are so crucial for success when playing shorthanded.

References:

1. Walter, Ryan, and Mike Johnston. “Penalty Kills.” Hockey Plays and Strategies. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2010. N. pag. Print.

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