The last two evenings I got out of Port Hope to see some great hockey games played in. Friday, I travelled three hours down the 401 yesterday to see two of the four uSports women’s quarter final games. The first game saw Manitoba beat Queen’s 4-0 and in the late game, Concordia dominated St.FX 8-1. It was great to see some truly awesome play by all the teams and connect with a lot of great hockey friends and former players that were in attendance.
Last night I took in game two of the CWHL semi-final between the Calgary Inferno and the Kunlun Red Star that was played in Markham. The game was tremendous. A very late goal by Calgary sent the game to overtime but the Red Star scored a beauty just into the third minute of overtime.
I sat with a former player of mine Stef Thomson for the final period of the last game on Friday night. Stef is an assistant coach with Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and we always have a spirited and fascinating coaching conversation when we are together or on the phone. The score at the start of the third period was 4-0 for Concordia. It was a sudden death quarter-final and obviously a must win for both teams. I asked Stef what she thought about pulling the goalie in this situation.
(Now, I am going to say right here, pulling the goalie is a scary proposition for a coach at any time! There may not be a bigger decision that a coach can make that comes under scrutiny by everyone - players, fans (parents!).)
To preface the question, I referenced a fascinating game that was played on March 28, 2015 between Providence College and Miami of Ohio in the men’s NCAA East Regional Semifinal. Down 6-2, Miami pulled the goalie with 12:48 left in the third period to try to even things up. To my mind, this is one of the first high profile games where a coach pulled their goalie this early in the game to try to get back into it. It might not have been noteworthy if Providence had scored and made it 7-2 but, Miami managed to score three goals before finally surrendering an empty netter with 6 seconds left to lose 7-5.
So back to the question, 4-0 to start the third, 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, statistically in 2015, coaches pulled their goalie, on average, with 1:15 left in the third compared to :54 left in 2007 - that’s a big increase in less than a decade. But watching that third period last night I thought, I might pull the goalie in about two minutes (the 18:00 mark) if I were St.FX. Get an early goal in this period and feel like we might be able to get back in the game.
I did some research on the statistics of playing with an extra attacker. Much of the data online either looked like equations like this:
Or graphs like this:
What stands out in the information though is that NHL teams score at about 3 times the rate with the goalie out. So, here is a “ballpark” breakdown with rounded numbers: It takes about 24 minutes to score a goal 5 on 5 for a good team. 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% chance to score with the goalie out - about the rate of a good power play. But, there is a chance that the opposition will score in 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% chance to score 5 on 5 in that same two minutes. (Of course there will be huge variances with player selection, etc. I am just doing a little ball parking here.)
Another little statistical note, the team defending the 6 on 5 is about 50% 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.
A couple of important takeaways from all of this:
1) A team needs to be comfortable with playing with no goalie. It has to be part of normal business 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 just say to your players when they go out on the ice in that last minute “get the puck to the net!” and expect everything to be done to perfection. I am 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. Let your players get a feel for creating and defending 2v1s regularly - they will get better at it. How about small area games with no goalie in one net and a man advantage! What about scrimmaging at the end of practice 6 on 5 when you only have one goalie that day and not making the one team hit the post for a goal? Get players used to no goalie in their net.
3) I think coaches should pull their goalie more with a faceoff in the offensive zone and just a few seconds left (4 seconds? 6 seconds? 10 seconds??). Again, this is something that can be practiced so that everyone knows what to do on the loss of a draw.
4) Think about pulling your goalie on a power play (in the right situation). Playing 6 on 4 doubles your chances of scoring statistically in the NHL. I think often 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 at it at the net. (I have no 6 on 3 stats to quote - just doesn’t happen enough.)
5) What is the right situation to pull the goalie at a non-traditional point in the game? I think that point is anytime 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.
6) If you have six minutes to watch those Miami vs. Providence highlights, notice how the confidence and momentum builds for Miami as the game gets closer and they are successful with the goalie out. If St.FX could have scored one early in the third Friday night to make it 4-1, they may have found a way to claw their way back and taken some momentum away from their opposition.
In a conversation last night with my coaching colleague and friend Kim McCullough at the game, she was adamant that practicing situations with the goalie out is paramount to being comfortable and ultimately successful and suggested that typically coaches don’t spend enough time on this during the season. I would wholeheartedly agree.
And let’s be clear, a little luck isn’t bad as well!!