There may be no bigger decision to make than when to pull the goalie
By Rick Traugott
It goes without saying that deciding when to pull the goalie can be a scary proposition for a coach or team at any time. There may not be a bigger decision to make that comes under scrutiny by everyone—the players, the fans, and in the case of youth hockey, of course the parents.
If your team is down 4-0 to start the third period, it’s obviously a must-win situation. When might you pull the goalie? Now, I am the first to admit I am not a big fan of an empty net more than a minute and a half left in the game. I think I owe that to coming from a traditional, old-school coaching mindset. In fact, statistics show that teams are increasingly pulling their goalies with more time left on the clock. Get an early goal in and feel like you might be able to get back in the game.
I did some research on the statistics of playing with an extra attacker. What stands out in the data though is that NHL teams score at about 3 times the rate with the goalie pulled. So here is a rough breakdown with rounded numbers:
It takes about 24 minutes for a good team to score a goal, 5 on 5. And it takes about 8 minutes to score 6 on 5 for a good team. That means, in two minutes a good team has a 25 percent chance to score with the goalie pulled—about the rate of a good power play. But there is always a chance that the opposition will score on the empty net, which happens at a little less than three times the rate (it takes about 3 minutes to score on an empty net).
On the bright side, it’s about an 8 percent chance to score 5 on 5 in that same 2 minutes. (Of course, there will be huge variances with player selection, etc. I am just doing a little estimating here.)
Another little statistical note: The team defending the 6 on 5 is about 50 percent more likely to take a penalty than playing 5 on 5, and 6 on 4 gives an even bigger advantage to the team with the extra attackers when it comes to goal scoring.
5 important points to consider:
1) A team needs to be comfortable with playing with no goalie between the pipes. It has to be part of business as usual during a game. Which means…
2) You can’t just work on 6 on 5 once and feel like your team will be fine in a big game. Just as you can’t simply say to your players when they go out on the ice in that last minute to “get the puck to the net!” and expect everything to be carried out to perfection. I’m a big believer in practicing a lot with uneven-man situations. Not just power play and penalty kill, but small-area games 3 on 2 or 2 on 1. Your players should get a feel for creating and defending 2v1s regularly; no doubt they will get better at it.
How about small-area games with no goalie in one net and a man advantage? Try scrimmaging with 6 on 5 when you only have one goalie, and not making the one team hit the post for a goal. Get players used to having no goalie in their net.
3) Coaches and teams should pull their goalie more with a face-off in the offensive zone and just a few seconds left on the clock (4 seconds? 6 seconds? 10 seconds?). Again, this is something that can be practiced so that everyone knows what to do in the loss of a draw.
4) Think about pulling your goalie on a power play (in the right situation). In the NHL, statistically, playing 6 on 4 doubles a team’s chances of scoring. I often think about playing 6 on 3 if there is more than a minute of two penalties. Have three players “cover” the three penalty killers and let the other three have a go at it at the net. (I have no 6 on 3 stats to quote; it just doesn’t happen enough.)
5) What is the right situation to pull the goalie at a nontraditional point in the game? My feeling is that point can be any time a loss is looking like a pretty sure thing, but a goal-for might make a huge difference. Think situations such as a “traditional” goal down late in the game; a three-goal deficit in the middle of the second period; two goals down with 10 minutes left in the game.
And let’s be clear: a little luck couldn’t hurt as well!
Rick Traugott has served with Hockey Canada as a camp coach, with both the National Women’s U18 and U22/Development teams. His teams have won numerous championships and medals in international competitions. For more information visit his website, www.ricktraugott.com. Reproduced with permission of Rick Traugott.