51 Seconds That Saved A Game: Breaking Down Hockey’s Five-On-Three Play

No. 15 men’s hockey currently leads the nation in shorthanded goals. They say the best offense starts with a great defense, and shorthanded production is the most tangible depiction of that mantra. Goals wouldn’t be possible if Penn State’s defense couldn’t keep the puck out of the McAdam-Skoff-Funkey territory on the man-down situations.

We saw Penn State flex its defensive muscles against Michigan State in a 2-2 tie and shootout win last weekend. It was stuck with the difficult task of playing five-on-three hockey, a scenario that often ends in a goal against for the team with three skaters.

I could barely live tweet the action. My eyes were glued to an elite team.

Not only did Penn State kill off two coinciding penalties, but it proved its defense is just as capable as its offense. Michigan State Sparty Noooo’ed and let go of its 2-1 lead off a Luke Juha power play equalizer with 5:28 left in regulation. Penn State clung to its hope for a win with a vengeance when a pair of Nittany Lion penalties forced Zach Saar into the box with 5:13 remaining followed by Connor Varley with 4:04 on the clock. The Nittany Lions were thrusted into 51 drawn-out seconds down two men.

I am a pretty critical person — perhaps to a fault sometimes. I’m a spoiled Boston fan with a certain set of expectations, after all. But I am still so impressed with these final minutes of regulation that I got my hands on some video footage and broke it down for those not lucky enough to witness it live.

It all started with captain David Glen and Michigan State’s Thomas Ebbing facing off in Penn State’s defensive zone. The Spartans won the draw and fed it out of the scrum to the point.

Michigan State collected itself and took a breather exchanging passes before it got to work. The puck traveled all over the zone, forcing Penn State’s three-man defense into a more open play so all eyes could focus on it without committing too much — a delicate balance the defenders executed flawlessly. This spurt of time elucidates the importance of fundamentals. Watch the people wearing blue stay in between the people wearing green and the net. It’s one of those simple yet sometimes tricky in the heat of the moment sports things.

Here’s where goalie Eamon McAdam comes into play with his first big save of the five-on-three.

“It was late in the game and obviously I just felt that I needed to shut the door,” he said. “We stayed in the zone a bit longer than I wanted to, but we had a couple big blocks from the guys. We just managed to hold them off.”

In this next frame, focus on the staggered positioning of defenders first. You can tell painstaking hours of practice made that level of nonverbal communication possible. Once you’re over that (we’re still not, but whatever), notice McAdam’s ice awareness. He’s able to deflect one shot, notice it rebound to the other side, and shuffle over in time for the next one.

In a five-on-three situation, panic mode is often unavoidable. The next 14 seconds are marked by a Penn State defense that’s keeping its composure when most would fall apart. The pack of three stay in a somewhat tight zone, shifting when necessary but never straying too far from the net. Kerr sees a quick pass to the left and bends down to potentially snatch it up, but he’s also mindful not to over-commit. When you’re in a high-stakes 2-2 five-on-three situation with 3:20 left in regulation, over-committing is a death sentence so many defenders fall victim to despite best intentions. He doesn’t crack.

Last ditch efforts be damned, McAdam and company are ready for Michigan State’s one-timer. The machine that is Penn State hockey’s defense feeds off itself. The trio protects McAdam and McAdam makes sure their exhausting efforts don’t go unrewarded.

The time runs out on Sparty’s golden opportunity and it transitions into a 5-on-4 powerplay they also fail to capitalize on. Penn State took home two points and made a statement on defense in a 2-2 tie and shootout win against Michigan State that we won’t forget.

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About the Author

Sara Civian

Sara Civian is one of Onward State's three ridiculously good looking managing editors, a hockey writer at heart, and an Oxford comma Stan. She's a senior majoring in journalism, minoring in history, and living at Bill Pickle's Tap Room. Her favorite pastimes are telling people she's from Boston, watching the Bruins, and meticulously dissecting the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album. She's seen Third Eye Blind live 14 times. If you really hate yourself, you can follow her at @SaraCivian or email her at [email protected].

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