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Do's and the New Jersey Devils' Don'ts for Two Man Advantages

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In their last two games, the New Jersey Devils had two lengthy two man advantages in one-goal games and proceeded to do nothing with them. This post looks at what teams should do and what the Devils haven't done on them so far.

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The two-man advantage is either one of the most fearsome or enticing phrases in hockey.  The team with two extra skaters on the ice gets a lot of space and time to attack. The team down two just has to hope the three remaining skaters can make plays, the goalies get stops, and Lady Luck doesn't shun them.  Killing a two man advantage can feel like a success; they survived a precarious situation.  Not succeeding with a two man advantage can be a total let down. New Jersey Devils fans know the latter all too well from their last two games.

Adding to their value is their scarcity.  Often times, a two man advantage will come when a team takes a penalty while killing one already.  Therefore, the overlap may only be a few seconds as opposed to anything over a minute.  It explains why the Devils had six of them last season but it lasted only six minutes total.  The total time available was used up as the Devils were the only team to not have scored a 5-on-3 goal last season, according to the stats page at NHL.com. That said, their rareness and often short time-spans meant that your league leaders in 5-on-3 goals were a four way tie of Pittsburgh, Dallas, Ottawa, and Colorado with five.  Yes, only five. Of course, opportunities were few. Colorado and Winnipeg tied for the most last season with seventeen.   It was not and it will not be a major source of goal production.

That being said, you are right to have higher hopes for offense when a 5-on-3 comes long.  Last season, all thirty teams combined for a 5-on-4 power play success rate of 18.3% (1,296/7,065).  For 5-on-3s, that success rate increased to 23.7% (72/304).  Over the last five NHL seasons, the league's 5-on-4 success rate was 17.4% (6,026/34,581) and it rose to 27.6% (484/1,752) for 5-on-3 situations.  In general, having an extra skater makes a conversion more likely.   With the Devils being one of three teams who've had three opportunities but the only one of those three without any goals from it, let's look at what's wrong.

From what I've observed of 5-on-3 power plays is that possession is critical.  The whole goal of any penalty killer is to disrupt the power play.  That means filling in lanes, getting in position to dissuade dangerous shots, and reacting very quickly to any time the puck gets loose.  This could be an errant pass, a puck bouncing off a blade, or just someone losing control as much as it is a rebound of a shot at the goalie or the boards.  Guess what the Devils have problems with?  Maintaining control. This undercuts their game and it's especially damaging in an offensive situation.  All the killers have to do is get the puck away.  And so far, in 2:34 of 5-on-3 time, they have succeeded.  So that's the first Do.  Do what you can to keep control of the puck.  Ignore all of those yelling in the stands for a shot, resist the temptation to hurry to make a play, and focus on making simple plays.  That's what the Devils haven't been doing. That's the first Don't.

Suppose the puck does leave the zone. A breakout should be easy in theory since the other team has only three skaters on the ice. They're not going to risk all three right at the blueline. They're out-numbered by two, a quick pass can easily spring the uncovered player into space.  A one-on-one if they're fast enough and the entry pass is perfect. Still, gaining the zone should not be a challenge.  Do modify the breakout such that there are open players in space to make a controlled entry by a carry-in or a pass.  Don't do what we've seen from the Devils, which included making difficult passes in stride and almost in parallel to gain the zone and a dump-in.  The latter was especially sigh-inducing against San Jose as the opposition picked it up and fired it away for a clear.  Again, possession is important, having to go chase the puck is time spent having to restart and begin the breakout instead of attacking. So, learn from the Devils, don't dump the puck in. Don't make breakout passes in the way of any defender or put it away from the forward.  Do keep it simple because it the space will be there to do so.

Speaking of modifications, a power play formation is usually be worth tinkering for 5-on-3 situations.  With additional space available to use, it's worth modifying how players are positioned and who's out there.  For example, a team that runs a 1-3-1 may want to consider moving to a more traditional set-up to ensure both points are protected.  The Devils did this in New York yesterday.  Having two defenders, especially two who can shoot the puck well like Damon Severson and Eric Gelinas, is sensible. What was not sensible was how the other three forwards were lined up.  One Devil was in front of the net and the other two were by the goal line on each side.  All this did was ensure the play would stay to the perimeter.  The two forwards, while open, were in no position to take any decent shots.  So all they can really do is pass it.  The New York penalty killers just had to sit in a triangle, be patient, and make a play when a long shot was taken.  They did and they were able to kill a long 5-on-3 situation without too much drama.  A 5-on-3 means there are two extra skaters on the ice, having them in spots on the ice where they can't do much takes away that advantage.  Do change tactics and personnel to make the most of the situation. Don't be like the Devils and put players in places where they can't do much.

Lastly, while I stated earlier in this post about focusing on keeping control of the puck, how the puck is moved to keep control can make a huge difference between a 5-on-3 that does something on offense and a 5-on-3 that does not. Generally, teams having to kill a 5-on-3 will sit players in a triangle formation around the slot.  Moving the puck efficiently and quickly can draw a defender away from the triangle or catch them in a position where they aren't fully filling the lane.  With quickness and crispness, they can get someone doing too much to catch-up or force them to catch-up. That's the time to strike.  Against the Rangers, the Devils didn't do this.  With players set-up to be around the perimeter, almost telegraphing where they would move the puck next, the defenders easily and patiently rotated their triangle as needed.  That's partially on the formation, given where the Devils' attackers were set up.  However, if the defending team can easily track where the puck is going, then that gives them a better chance to defend what's coming.  Some unpredictability and pace is needed to really make the most of having two extra skaters.  Moving the puck quickly and in ways to throw off the defenders is something working doing.  The Devils didn't do that yesterday or on their other opportunities; therefore, they have yielded little offense.

Going back through this, it's apparent that this isn't all on players executing.  Some of the Devils' 5-on-3 woes are attributable to coaching.  And with some of them, like puck control and the breakout, they are certainly applicable in more common game situations than the two man advantage.  Over the course of a season, the Devils aren't going to get many two man advantages. That's true for all teams.  And they're not going to get a lot of goals, like all teams. However, these are issues to address that could make gains elsewhere. It's not as easy as stating Don't's into Do's as I've written, but getting there is something that helps the team overall.  It may be a while before the next two man advantage; hopefully, the team can make the appropriate adjustments and changes to make it mean that we don't see a 5-on-3 situation of a decent length of time without any shots on net or another season without a two-man advantage goal.

What do you see that the Devils aren't doing right on 5-on-3s that other teams may do?  What other changes should they try to make as the season goes on? Will they score a two-man advantage goal in this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about two man advantages in the comments. Thank you for reading.