North America

5 Radical Goalie-Pulling Strategies

Lately there has been an evolution in the way NHL coaches pull their goalies: goalies are being pulled much earlier 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 five such ideas:

  1. 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 relatively tired.    

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 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”, to prevent opponents from wasting valuable time and changing lines

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 much harder for the penalty killers to change lines, which can lead to fatigue in cases where the penalty killers 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.

Another, lesser benefit of this strategy is that, if perfected, it could serve as a sort three-card-monty line change: the “safety” comes fresh off the bench to briefly replace the goalie, then the safety stays on the ice while a more tired power player goes to the bench so that the goalie can reenter the game.

3.   Pull to get a scoring chance against tired players, then put your goalie back in asap

This is a variation on strategy #1, but it could be employed much more frequently, since it could be used against opponents who are only relatively tired instead of needing ones who are utterly exhausted. The idea is this: late in the third period (say, with five minutes left), if your team controls the puck in the offensive zone and is facing relatively tired opponents at the end of their shift, you pull your goalie to try to get a good scoring attempt. Right after the shot, however, if you do not regain possession of the puck in the offensive zone — in other words, if there is a scramble for the puck on the boards, or if there is a face-off, or if you get the puck back but only after it has come out of the offensive zone — you rush your goalie back into the  net. 

The strategy here is to take advantage of tired opponents (for all of the reasons described above), and, more importantly, to keep your net empty only when you control the puck in the offensive zone. Of course, you still risk giving up an empty net goal via a turnover or missed shot.

4.   Pull on a power play to get a scoring opportunity, then put your goalie back in asap

This is a variation on the strategy above. One of the challenges with that strategy is that it is difficult to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone for long enough to bring the extra attacker onto the ice and into the play. On a power play, however, holding possession in the offensive zone is much easier. In this strategy, then, you pull your goalie when you have possession of the puck in the offensive zone on a power play and are desperate to score a goal, but then, after you have taken a shot, you put the goalie back into the game immediately if there is a scramble for the puck on the boards, or a face-off, or if you get the puck back but only after it has come out of the offensive zone, etc. One downside to this strategy compared to the one above is that the opposition can try to score without having to worry about icing, however. 

4.b) The same as strategy 3, but employed only when penalty killers are tired 

5.  Pull on a power play to gain the offensive zone, but put goalie back in net before shooting

This is the inverse of the third strategy. Here, rather than pull the goalie to get a good shot on a power play, you instead pull the goalie to get into the offensive zone with possession of the puck on the power play, then put the goalie back into the net before you even shoot. The idea here is to retain possession of the puck for the entire time your net is empty, so the opposing team never even gets a chance to score an empty net goal. If – a huge if – having six attackers allows you to gain the offensive zone with puck possession more quickly and without much of a risk of turning the puck over and giving up an empty net goal as you do so, then this could be worth trying if you are desperate. This is because the number one indicator of an effective power play is the speed in which a team can get into the offensive zone with possession of the puck.