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NHL Notebook

Rethinking when to pull the goalie Add to ...

Much of the statistical focus in the 2010 NHL playoffs has been on the proliferation of too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties. TSN especially is having fun with that development - glitzy graphics; pictures of that old soothsayer, Maggie The Monkey; host James Duthie handling everything with a nice light touch; even the odd bit of explanatory analysis tossed in for good measure.

Year over year, penalties for botched line changes and player brain cramps are way up - 28 in all, through Thursday, after the Detroit Red Wings' one oopsie moment in that monstrous five-goal first-period vs. San Jose Sharks.

But there is another statistical oddity in these playoffs that has been largely ignored, one that reverses a significant regular-season trend. It has to do with pulling the goalie - and how little impact that has had thus far in these playoffs.

For background, consider that this year NHL teams had extraordinary regular-season success in scoring goals in the final two minutes of play with the goalie on the bench for an extra attacker.

According to statistics compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau, there were 86 extra-attacker goals scored in the 1,230 regular-season games played - more than almost anyone would think.

The Buffalo Sabres led the way in that category with six goals scored while the goalie was on the bench. Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota and Ottawa were close behind, with five apiece.

There were also five cases of teams scoring two extra-attacker goals in the last two minutes of the third period in one game this season, including a victory by the Minnesota Wild over the Vancouver Canucks on the next-to-last weekend of the regular season, which was truly wild. Minnesota actually surrendered an empty-net goal to provide Vancouver with what seemed to be a comfortable two-goal cushion - and then promptly scored twice in the final minute with the goalie on the bench.

In total, there were 204 empty-net goals scored in the regular-season, meaning what many people believe is a strategy of desperation - pulling the goalie - actually had a fairly high ratio of success this past year.

For reasons that are difficult to quantify, however, that hasn't carried over into the playoffs, where teams - and gleeful poolies - are cashing in on a whole lot of empty-net goals - 18 as of Thursday, including three more in the last 72 hours.

By contrast, only three times thus far in the playoffs did the extra attacker work - once meaningfully, for the San Jose Sharks, when a goal by Joe Pavelski in Game 2 vs. Colorado sent it into overtime in a game the Sharks eventually won. Also: In a game that helped Chicago turn around its series against Nashville, the Blackhawks had Marian Hossa serving a major penalty as time wound down. With Antti Niemi on the bench for an extra attacker, thus evening up the personnel five skaters against five, Patrick Kane forced overtime by scoring a goal - and Hossa eventually won it in the extra period. The third goal with an extra attacker was scored by Buffalo's Thomas Vanek with the Sabres down two in the deciding game to Boston, but they couldn't get a second one past Tuukka Rask.

The strategy of pulling a goaltender was the subject of a study by University of Laval professor David Beaudoin. Along with Simon Fraser University's Tim Swartz, Beaudoin authored the work, analyzing the effectiveness of the pull-the-goalie strategy using data collected from the NHL 2007-08 regular season.

In an interview, Beaudoin said the impetus for his research came when he was sitting in front of his television set one day, watching the Montreal Canadiens play the Florida Panthers.

"They were trailing 3-0 in the second period and Florida got a penalty and I was wondering if it was that stupid an idea to pull your goalie - because the announcers were saying, well, that's Montreal's chance to come back in the game; they need to score during this power play.

"I started to wonder if it would be crazy to pull your goalie right there, even though it was in the second period.

"As a statistician, I thought it would be interesting to see what the optimal strategy was."

To that end, Beaudoin punched in stats from the 2007-08 NHL seasons and let the computer take over.

"Basically, the program simulates goals and penalties according to how often they occur in real life," said Beaudoin. "So we studied four different scenarios - for each of them, we looked at different strategies, including the current strategy used by NHL coaches, which is to pull the goalie with one-minute left when trailing by one goal and 1:30 left when trailing by two goals.

"We simulated millions of games, using different strategies, to see which one led to the highest-winning percentage."

The conclusion?

"We discovered the current strategy used by coaches is pretty much always the worst," said Beaudoin. "You have to be much more aggressive, especially if you get power plays late in the third and you're trailing. Often, you have to pull the goalie much sooner."

Beaudoin's research eventually came to the attention of then St. Louis Blues' coach Andy Murray, who was one of the most aggressive coaches in terms of pulling his goaltender during his time behind the bench of the NHL team. However, the majority of clubs stick to a tried-and-true strategy - of waiting until the very end to adopt the tactic.

"One of the keys is when you pull the goalie," said Dave King, the Phoenix Coyotes' assistant and another of the league's more progressive thinkers. "There's something magic about that one-minute mark, but to me, the most important thing is, if you get a faceoff in the offensive zone with a minute and a half left, that's not a bad time to do it right then because you've got the faceoff you want; you're in the offensive zone, where you want to be; and then you can organize. You can call a timeout. Sometimes, you don't get that.

"Sometimes, you're hoping for a stoppage in play and don't get one. Then you've got to get it done on the fly; that's when it's more difficult. Then you tell the guys, get it to the net and see what happens. Keep it simple."

King is an experienced international coach, who has worked in Germany and in Russia. In Germany, a handful of teams would occasionally pull their goaltenders, mid-game, if they had a two-man advantage in order to make it a 6-on-3. Uwe Krupp, the German Olympic coach, was prepared to try it in Vancouver, but the opportunity didn't arise.

When King coached internationally, he faced Russian teams that never pulled the goalie under any circumstances.

"They'd rather lose 3-2 than 4-2," said King. "I can remember many world championships and Izvestia Cups and tournaments like that where they wouldn't pull their goalie. I mean, you couldn't believe it.

"Conversely, in Europe, when we would do it, it would just electrify the building. I remember being in Russia and pulling our goalie with about a minute and a half to go and people were going crazy. They were just so excited about it all. They couldn't believe it. 'They're taking their goalie out.'

"So it lights people up and it makes the game exciting and I think the most important thing about it is, you're showing your team that you're never giving up. Because we pull our goalie sometimes with our team down two goals with two minutes to go. That's what you're trying to make your team understand - that you never give up on them. When you don't pull your goalie, you're giving up on your team - and that's not the way it's supposed to be. So there's a strong message for your team when you pull your goalie; and when you score, it's a bonus."

One of Phoenix's most important regular-season victories this past year came in Detroit when they succeeded in scoring two goals with the netminder on the bench to tie the game and then won in overtime.

As for all those goals cascading into the empty net in these playoffs, according to King, that can be helpful too.

"That's the other side of it. Sometimes, it gives you a chance to put a guy on the ice who's a solid player and needs a goal to get out of a slump. He's playing hard. He's competing. He's gone seven, eight, nine games without a goal and he gets an open-netter and wow, suddenly he's feeling great"

AROUND THE RINKS - The fallout from the Sabres' opening-round loss to the Boston Bruins has landed mostly on the shoulders of Tim Connelly and Drew Stafford, two of their more talented but soft players. Even if the Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to change things, the NHL's Northeast Division doesn't exactly hearken back to the days of the Big Bad Bruins or Broad Street Bullies. If Connolly does need a change of address, would the Sabres ever consider swapping him for his clone, Matt Stajan, most recently of the Calgary Flames and a new $14-million contract? No chance, right. As for Stafford, old friend Jim Matheson has been trying to get him traded to Edmonton for years, so that he could play on the same team that employed his uncle, equipment manager Barrie Stafford, for all those years. Stafford was removed from his old job during the Oilers' house cleaning so Edmonton probably isn't a likely destination for him. Still, what if Stafford is the Eastern Conference equivalent of Peter Mueller, a player who couldn't make it work in Phoenix, but blossomed after the trade to Colorado (20 points in 15 games; Mueller had only 17 in 54 for the Coyotes). All around the league this past year, there were success stories revolving around players that took advantage of a change in scenery, either to smarten up, or just turn the page on a situation that wasn't working, or both (see Guillaume Latendresse, Benoit Pouliot and to some extent, even Wojtek Wolski and Teddy Purcell). The Sabres accomplished a lot this year with very little beyond goaltender Ryan Miller and future Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers, but just because it didn't work out for a player there doesn't mean it can't happen for him elsewhere. Sometimes, a lateral move is better than no move at all.

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