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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."

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