Lately there has been an evolution in the way NHL coaches pull their goalies. Goalies are now being pulled much earlier in games than they used to be. There has been no revolutionary change, however. Goalies are still being pulled at the very end of games, and once pulled they tend to stay pulled until a goal is scored or there is a face-off outside of the offensive zone.
This begs the question of whether any radical change to the strategy of goalie-pulling could still be worth trying. Here are two such ideas:
- Pull earlier than usual to take advantage of exhausted opponents stuck on a very long shift
The risk/reward ratio of pulling a goalie might be much more favourable when an opposing team’s players are exhausted from being stuck on the ice in the middle of an especially long shift.
There are four reasons this may be the case:
First, the ability of players to score into an empty net will decrease when they are exhausted.
Second, the ability of tired players to reach the bench for a line change will decrease when the opposing team pulls its goalie. Typically, players that are exhausted by a long shift are able to escape to the bench either by having their goalie stop play or by getting a lucky bounce off of a missed shot, blocked shot, errant pass, or rebound, which then allows them to clear the puck out of their zone and complete a line change. When playing 5-on-6, however, the likelihood of a goalie being able to force a stoppage of play by making a save decreases, because the goalie’s vision is more likely to be obstructed and the shots that the goalie faces are likely to be harder to save. The likelihood of getting a lucky bounce also decreases, as there is less open ice and there is less likely to be a blocked or missed shot. Plus, even if there is a lucky bounce, it will still be difficult for tired players to clear the zone against six attackers. As such, the tired team may be unable to change lines, and so become even more tired, making the situation even more favourable for the trailing team. And, even if the tired team’s goalie does succeed in stopping play, the trailing team could simply choose to put its goalie back in net for the ensuing face-off.
Third, the willingness of players to even attempt to score an empty net goal will decrease the more tired they become. The reason for this is that if such a scoring attempt fails, it will most likely result either in an icing (which will lead to an even greater tiredness imbalance between the two teams, especially now that there has been a rule change that prevents coaches from using their timeout after an icing) or in an odd-man rush (because tired players will be much less able to get back on defence). As a result, rather than try to score, the tired team may instead focus on trying to get a line change in. During any such line change, the trailing team will usually be able to put its goalie back in if it wants to do so.
Fourth, pulling you goalie can allow you to bring your own best offensive player fresh off the bench, at a time when your own players already on the ice are likely to be somewhat tired themselves.
As a result of these factors, I suspect that it would sometimes be in a team’s interest to pull its goalie earlier than it normally would, in order to capitalize on situations in which the opposing players are exhausted from being stuck on an especially long shift. The question is: how much earlier?
A related question is this: how many goal behind does your team need to be to make such a strategy worth trying at a given point during the second period? Most of the opportunities to score against tired opponents stuck on a long shift occur in the second period, because of the long change.
2. A “5.5-on-3”: introducing a goalie-defensemen hybrid during a desperate two-man advantage
Most 5-on-3 power plays last much less than two minutes long, and on average the odds of a team scoring on a 5-on-3 only become better than the odds of scoring on a typical 2 minute 5-on-4 in cases where the 5-on-3 lasts at least a minute long.
So, not wasting time is crucial. If the penalty killers can kill time by dumping the puck down the ice, or if the power play wastes too much time trying to get the perfect shot (which they often do, as they know that if they do not get a perfect shot, the penalty killers might grab the rebound and dump it down the ice), then that 5-on-3 will be unlikely to score.
In this strategy, then, the goalie on the power play is pulled near the end of the 5-on-3, and replaced with a “safety”: a player who stays near to his or her own empty net in order to protect against long empty net goals, quickly respond to any dumped puck so as to minimize the amount of time the opposing team can waste, and allow his or her own team to avoid wasting time searching for the perfect scoring attempt. This “safety” specialist should excel at being able to serve, in effect, as a player-goalie hybrid.
As an added bonus, by quickly responding to pucks that are dumped or chipped out of the offensive zone, the safety will also make it more difficult for the penalty killers to change lines, which may lead the penalty killers to become fatigued in cases where they have been on the ice for a long time.
The goalie will be put back in the net before the 5-on-3 comes to an end.
In cases where the team is more desperate to score (if they are trailing late in the third period, for example), then this “5.5-on-3” strategy could also be used earlier in the power play.
A Hybrid Strategy
There might also a be a useful hybrid of the two strategies above: A “5.5-on-4”, used in desperate situations against tired penalty killers.
Imagine, for example, that your team is trailing by a goal with five minutes left in the game, and is a minute into a power play in which the opposing team’s penalty killers are becoming tired. Ideally, you want to prevent these tired penalty killers from being able to make it to the bench for a line change. By putting in an extra “safety” attacker at this point, but positioning him in the neutral zone, you might be able to help prevent the tired penalty killers from being able to change lines, while still preventing the tired penalty killers from having an easy shot at an empty net.
Plus, having the extra attacker already on the ice means that you could have the option of having him quickly move up into the offensive zone for a conventional 6 on 4 or (once the penalty ends) 6 on 5, as the clock ticks away and your team’s desperation increases. So, for example, if you could try a 5.5 on 4 with a minute left in the power play, then a 6 on 4 with thirty seconds left in the power play, then either put your goalie back in or keep the extra attacker on for a 6 on 5 (which, if the ex-penalty killers are still stuck on the ice and increasingly exhausted), could be useful even if there is still quite a bit of time left in the game).