Why pulling the goalie is often worth the risk
The most exciting 90 seconds in sports are created by a man who isn’t there. A hockey team is down a goal or two with the clock ticking toward double digits, and the coach pulls the goaltender and sends an extra skater over the dasher for an all-or-nothing gamble. More often than not the puck bounces off sticks, bodies, and walls or ends up in the empty cage. But the six-on-five gamble works often enough that it’s worth the risk, especially when the alternative is extinction.
“As long as you’ve got the right players doing the right things in the right places, a lot of times it can be successful,” says Bruins coach Claude Julien, whose club scored twice on the Maple Leafs in 31 seconds with goalie Tuukka Rask on the bench in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, and went on to win in overtime in the most storied comeback in Spoked-B annals.
The Bruins also scored twice on the Rangers in the final 1:31 of their February meeting at TD Garden, and salvaged a point despite a shootout loss. The Boys of Winter, trailing Sweden with a minute left in their 1980 Olympic opener at Lake Placid, yanked Jim Craig and escaped with a precious tie on defenseman Bill Baker’s goal, his only point of the Games.
And Boston University scored a pair in 42 seconds against Miami and went on to win the 2009 NCAA title in overtime. “It’s more successful than people think,” says just-retired BU coach Jack Parker, who pulled goalie Kieran Millan with 3½ minutes to play with his team down, 3-1.
Indeed, mathematical studies indicate that the extra-man gambit works often enough to justify it. Andrew Thomas, who studied data from four NHL seasons during the past decade for an article in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis, found that 30 percent of the goals scored with the cage empty were tallied by the attacking side. And while the league doesn’t keep stats on empty-cage goals, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that 48 extra-attacker goals (with or without the goalie pulled) were scored in the final three minutes during this year’s regular season with another seven in the playoffs.
If anything, researchers say, coaches should make an inevitable move sooner. “Under any reasonable set of assumptions, hockey coaches wait too long before pulling their goalies,” professors Robert Nydick and Howard Weiss concluded in a paper on the subject. The traditional rule of thumb calls for adding an extra attacker with between 90 seconds and two minutes remaining, with between two and 2:30 if down by two, or earlier if the trailing team is on the power play.
“What are the chances of your scoring two goals in the last two minutes?” says Andy Murray, the former coach of the Kings and Blues who’s now head man at Western Michigan. “In most cases, that isn’t reality. If you wait that long, you’re probably going to lose by two or three, anyway.”
That’s what Parker concluded when he rolled the dice against Miami. “I was hemming and hawing about whether to do it,” he recalls. But his players, who wore “Burn The Boats” T-shirts beneath their jerseys, had determined to do whatever it took to win the title, so Parker used his timeout and went all-in.
It still took more than 2½ minutes for the Terriers to score. “People think you must have scored right away,” Parker says. “But we didn’t get the first goal until there was less than a minute to go.” Zach Cohen potted one out of a scramble with 59.5 seconds left in regulation. Then Nick Bonino tied it with a one-time slapper from the right circle with 17.4 seconds to play, and Colby Cohen won it after 11:47 of overtime with a shot that bounced off a defender and over the goalie’s left shoulder.
When defeat seems certain, a yawning net carries minimal risk. That’s what Murray concluded in 1979 when his Brandon Travellers were trailing Dawson, 7-1, early in the third period of their Manitoba junior league playoff game. So for the rest of the game he pulled his goalie whenever his team had an offensive-zone faceoff, and watched them score five unanswered goals, just missing the equalizer in what was a nearly unimaginable comeback. “Their coach was going crazy because they kept icing the puck and couldn’t hit the net,” Murray recalls. “Then they got nervous. They didn’t seem to deal with it very well.”
While every team practices defending against conventional power plays — the diamond formation is a traditional staple — few do it with the opposite cage vacant. “Not many teams practice against the pulled goalie,” says former US Olympic women’s coach Ben Smith. “It’s just not something that happens.”
Which is why an attacking team with a plan has a decided advantage. “It’s about staying poised, staying composed, and knowing how much time you have on the clock,” says Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who scored both the tying and winning goals against Toronto.
Unlike football and basketball, which are better suited to set plays involving X’s and O’s, hockey is more fluid by its nature. “When you talk about it, you talk more about how you’re going to set up and what options you have with the extra man,” says Bruins winger Milan Lucic. “And usually it’s an extra guy off the side of the net.”
The six on five, with its imperative of keeping everyone at one end of the ice, creates an unusual equation. “It’s so specific because you have 11 skaters in one zone,” says Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, who was involved in both of the extra-man goals against the Maple Leafs. “It’s very limited on space and time.”
Certain essentials, though, are basic. Your center has to win the faceoff that prompted the pulling. You have to get people to the net. And you have to control the puck. “The biggest thing is, the minute you lose a puck somebody’s got to get on it quick,” says Julien. “You don’t want to give them time with it, because they’ll end up scoring a goal. With six on five you’ve got to make sure you’re jumping on the puck all over the ice.”
By definition, though, the attackers always have one man open, which is an invaluable edge on the initial faceoff. “That half-second of indecision about who gets who, that’s when all hell breaks loose,” says Smith. So the right players-right places-right things combination is crucial.
That’s what worked for the Bruins when they were in extremis against Toronto. “It was too bad they were in that position, but the good news is that they had the skill and the talent to be able to pull it off,” says Andy Brickley, the NESN analyst and former Bruin. “You’ve got to have some gray matter. You have to understand what to do and you have to have a system with some flexibility built in.”
When Boston scored its two-fer against Toronto, it had its ideal sextet on the ice for the entire time — Bergeron, Chara, Lucic, and forwards David Krejci, Jaromir Jagr, and Nathan Horton. It also had them pragmatically arranged with Chara and Bergeron originally at the points, Krejci in the left circle, Jagr and Horton low and high in the right circle, and Lucic in front. “We all knew where to be on the ice, so that helps a lot,” says Bergeron. “After that it’s just trying to create and play with whatever’s coming up. And a little bit of bounces here and there doesn’t hurt, either.”
With two goals to make up and time dwindling, the Bruins had no time to dither. “The first opening anybody has, you always try to shoot at the net, and you obviously want to have somebody in lanes for traffic, for rebounds,” says Chara. “The biggest thing is to get the puck to those people.”
The person in question on the first one was Lucic, who’d knocked in a goal on a six-on-five bid near the end of Game 6, and who was parked on the doorstep in front of goalie James Reimer. “I was trying to create a screen and trying to find loose pucks in front,” he said. Krejci had passed the puck to Bergeron, who swung it across to Chara, who leveled a blast from the right point with Lucic roofing the rebound with 1:22 to play.
Next time it was the towering Chara in front and Lucic behind the cage on retrieval duty. “My main objective was to create the battle and keep the puck in and that’s what ended up happening,” said Lucic, who got the puck to Jagr at the point.
This time, the play went from right to left from Jagr to Bergeron to Krejci in the circle, back to Bergeron. “I could have gone back to Krejci on the half-wall or go to Jags on the other half-wall,” Bergeron says. “They were both open there. But I had a good lane for a shot and I knew we had some good traffic with Z and even Horty in the slot.” So Bergeron let fly a wrister and the puck sailed through the throng with 50.2 seconds to go.
While the two empty-cage goals set up a miracle or a meltdown, depending on your perspective, they were the product of a traditional game-end tactic by a desperate team. Far less common is pulling the goaltender while on the power play, which Murray did a decade ago when he took off Cristobal Huet in overtime against last-place Columbus in a game that Los Angeles had to win to make the playoffs.
“[Coach] Doug MacLean was screaming at me,” remembers Murray, whose club gave up an empty-netter. “They’d had a tough year and he thought I was trying to embarrass them. I saw him later in the lobby and he apologized. The guys on the bench had told him what the situation was.”
Rarer still is pulling the goalie when you’re two men up. That’s what German men’s coach Uwe Krupp did twice against the Americans in their 2007 Deutschland Cup meeting, scoring once in midgame and again in the final five minutes. Though the Yanks survived, Smith, who coached that team, became a believer in the power of numbers. He convinced Parker to do the same thing against Cornell in Madison Square Garden, and the Terriers ended up pulling out a draw.
“It’s a tremendous strategy,” Smith says. “I think almost any time in the game if you have a two-man advantage, you have to think about pulling the goalie.” The odds of success six on three are better than you may think. Ask the mathematicians, who’ve run the numbers. Or do it yourself with a computer, using constrained Bayesian estimation via Markov chain methods.