What does an empty net mean in hockey?

There are a few times in hockey you will look down at the far end of the ice and see and empty net. Where did the goalie go? What reason does a team have for not putting a goalie in their net?

Why is there an empty net goal in hockey? The two reasons for an empty net in hockey are during a delayed penalty call and at the end of the game to gain an extra attacker to try and score an extra goal to tie up the game. 

Let’s look at both of these situations more closely and the strategy and nuances around them. 

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Empty net from a delayed penalty call 

When a penalty is called against a team, but the team that is not penalized still has the puck the referee will not blow the whistle.

The rules of the game allow the non-penalized team to try and keep on scoring until the team that is penalized touches the puck. This makes sense because why should you stop the play when a team that has done nothing wrong has a chance to score or could still score if the play continued?

When this type of play happens during a game it is called a delayed penalty.

For example, let’s say a player who is carrying the puck gets slashed across the hands. This will be called a penalty every time. And, in this example even though the player was slashed they still manage to keep control of the puck. 

The referee will raise his hand in the air signaling a penalty, but not blow the whistle.  However, since the hand has been raised everyone knows that a penalty is coming once the penalized team touches the puck.

Since the penalized team does not have an opportunity to score the team going on the power play will pull their goalie to get an extra attacker on the ice.

This works so well, so much of the time. However, there have been a few cases where the team that has pulled their goalie during a delayed penalty have actually scored on their empty net!

The most common scenario of scoring on your own empty net would be a forward passing the puck to a defencemen so he can take a shot, and the pass misses the defencemen and goes into their own net.

This is technically not designated as an empty net goal on the stat sheets, but an even strength goal. The player who last touched the puck for the penalized team will get credit for the goal.

Empty net at the end of the game

Hockey games are usually one goal affairs. That means the score at the end of games will often be only a goal apart. For example, a typical score is 3-2 or 4-3.

When a team is trailing by one or two goals with only a few minutes to go in the game the main strategy is to pull the goalie. The hope is that an extra attacker the offensive upside of having an extra player to try and score will outweigh the defensive risk of having no goalie for that short period of time. 

Pulling the goalie means that the goalie will physically skate from his net to the bench, and be replaced by an extra attacker, who will now go and help his team score. The extra attacker can help his team overload the other team and hopefully create mismatches in the offensive zone giving them a better opportunity to score. 

Of course while the goalie is pulled and the extra attacker is on, the goalie net will be empty – very dangerous!

Pulling the goalie is a high risk play, because it is extremely difficult to keep the puck from the opponent for any length of time. So when your opponent eventually gets the puck back they will have the opportunity to shoot on an empty net. 

Players will try to prevent any shot on the open net, and sometimes they do. However, if a shot gets off at an open net it usually goes in – even when being defended or blocked by one of the defensemen. These guys are just too good to miss empty nets.

So when a player scores on the net when the goalie has been pulled that is an empty net goal.

How often are they scored on when they goalie is pulled?

Well, let’s look at the stats from the 2022-23 season.

Empty Net OpportunitiesGoals Scored with Empty NetGoals Allowed on Empty NetNo Goals Scored
Percentage Totals16%40%43%


When you pull your goalie from the net you can expect to get scored on almost half the time at 40%. Teams actually scored with an empty net and the extra attacker more than I thought at 16% of the time.

And 43% of the time a goal was neither scored to help tie up the game or into an empty net.

Empty net goals on the scoresheet

When you look at the box score or stat sheet of a game the empty net goal will have a special designation on it. Let’s take a look at an example

Goal: Nathan MacKinnon (35) ASST:  Makar (50), Toews (23) (en)

What this is telling us is that MacKinnon scored his 35th goal of the season, and it was assisted my Makar, who now has 50 assists, and Toews, who now has 23 assists. The ‘en’ in brackets indicates that it was scored into an empty net.

Some of the abbreviations you will see by goals are:

(sh) – shorthanded

(pp) – powerplay

(en) – empty net

Most Career Empty Net Goals

Yes, empty net goals count towards a players personal statistics. And players end up scoring a lot of them over their career. 

Here are the top 5 all-time empty net goal scorers:

PlayerCareer Empty Net Goals
Wayne Gretzky56
Alex Ovechkin56
Marian Hossa40
Mario Lemieux33
Jarome Iginla32


Most famous empty net goal ever!

Wayne Gretzky scored what was probably the most famous empty net goal ever.

In December of 1991 Gretzky was looking to become the first player to score 50 goals in 40 games of less. In the 39th game of the season Gretzky sat at 45 goals.

He would go onto score 5 goals against the Philadelphia Flyers that night with the last one being an empty net to be the first player to score 50 goals in less than 40 games. No player has done or probably ever will do this again!

Here is Gretzky breaking the record:


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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

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