Why does a team pull the goalie in hockey?

No matter how long you have watched hockey, it is still odd to see a goalie rush to his own bench and leave an empty net behind. There must be a good reason for it. Let’s take a closer look.

A hockey team will pull their goalie in the last few minutes of the game, if they are losing, as a strategy to increase their chances of scoring a goal. As the goalie comes off the ice, an offensive player will go on the ice. It is a high-risk play that gives the team an offensive advantage and worked 14.13% of the time in the 2018-19 NHL season.

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What is the full strategy behind pulling the goalie?

Now, pulling the goalie as part of an NHL game seems risky – and it is! If the strategy was to go without a goalie for the full game and just have six skaters the team would probably lose 100-0. But the goalie is only pulled at one key time of the game – the very end when a team is losing by 1 or 2 goals.

Pulling the goalie is all about giving your team an offensive advantage. Think power play. When a team has a power play, they will have an extra skater on the ice, usually 5 skaters to 4. Pulling the goalie is like the form of another power play but this time being 6 skaters to 5, with the added risk of an empty net. This extra skater will allow the team to overload the offensive zone, hopefully creating a mismatch since all the attacking players cannot be covered by the defensive team. This mismatch will usually allow the offensive team to generate one or two good offensive scoring chances, and increase their ability to tie up the game.

Pulling a goalie with only 1 to 2 minutes is a short enough amount of time to withstand getting scored on, but also giving your team an offensive advantage to make one final push to tie up the game and send it to overtime.

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The goalie will usually not be pulled until the team pulling the goalie has possession of the puck (the odd time, the goalie will be pulled on a faceoff at the other end of the rink). Imagine the team trying to rush the puck up the ice and the goalie skating out of his net to the bench to get one more attacker on the ice to try and score a goal.

The main reason for pulling the goalie: getting points for the standings

The competition in the NHL is razor thin between teams — every point gained in the NHL standings is valuable. In the regular season, if teams lose in regulation time (the initial 60 minutes) they will get zero points towards their place in the standings. However, if the team is tied at the end of regulation time, the team who loses in overtime still gets one point, while the team who wins gets two points.

Therefore, it is worth it for a team to try everything they can to tie up the game before regulation ends — not just because they will have a chance to win in overtime, but also because a tie means they will secure at least one point. This is why you will often see both teams play cautiously if they are tied in the last few minutes because they both know they are only minutes away from getting a guaranteed point; this is termed ‘playing for a tie’.


Pulling the goalie: the first time

The first time a goalie was pulled is credited to Frank Boucher, the coach of the New York Rangers. Either in the 1939-1940 or 1940-41 season, Boucher started to pull the goalie when his team was behind at the end of the game. He is also credited with the innovation of using two goalies regularly throughout a season.

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Strategy evolution for pulling the goalie

For the longest period of time, the rule of thumb to pull the goalie was only in the last minute of the game. It was almost unheard of to have the goalie pulled before the final 60 seconds.

Patrick Roy, the Hall of Fame goaltender who became coach, was the really the first one to challenge this convention. In 2014, he started to pull the goalie on power plays with 12 or 13 minutes left in the period when he his team was trailing significantly (making a 6 on 4 player advantage). He would then go onto start pulling the goalie with up to 3 minutes to go if his team was behind by a goal or two at the end of the game.

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Patrick Roy when he was coaching the Colorado Avalanche

“I think before this year the number that was closely associated was 90 seconds [to pull the goalie], but quite frankly, and give him all the credit in the world, which I do, watching Colorado play and pulling the goalie with three or four minutes to go, it’s a total different entity,” Boudreau said. “We started looking at the three-minute mark, but we didn’t get a good chance until about two-and-a-half minutes to go pull him. With a two-goal deficit, it would have been around a two-minute mark for me, but watching what’s going on around the League, and obviously Patrick started it in Colorado, it seems to be making a lot of sense. We tried it and it worked. I wouldn’t have normally pulled him or thought of it that early.”

NHL coach, Bruce Boudreau Source

This trend started by Patrick Roy has lasted to this date, and it is common for the goalie to get pulled with 2 minutes or more left in the game.


How effective is pulling your goalie?

The strategy of pulling the goalie is effective. The team pulling their goalie scored on average 14.13% of time during the 2018-19 NHL season. The chart below gives the success rate of each of the teams, but keep in mind that they also got scored on 50% of these times.

TeamTimes Scored
with Goalie
Pulled
Total
Attempted
Goalie Pulls
% of
Successful
Attempts
ANAHEIM DUCKS1234.35%
ARIZONA COYOTES2287.14%
BOSTON BRUINS62425.00%
BUFFALO SABRES43411.76%
CALGARY FLAMES42218.18%
CAROLINA HURRICANES62623.08%
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS53414.71%
COLORADO AVALANCHE62920.69%
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS2238.70%
DALLAS STARS2296.90%
DETROIT RED WINGS83622.22%
EDMONTON OILERS62821.43%
FLORIDA PANTHERS73221.88%
LOS ANGELES KINGS2306.67%
MINNESOTA WILD53215.63%
MONTREAL CANADIENS0210.00%
NASHVILLE PREDATORS52718.52%
NEW JERSEY DEVILS53116.13%
NEW YORK ISLANDERS0180.00%
NEW YORK RANGERS52917.24%
OTTAWA SENATORS2345.88%
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS73221.88%
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS2229.09%
SAN JOSE SHARKS42416.67%
ST. LOUIS BLUES42119.05%
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING0150.00%
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS52520.00%
VANCOUVER CANUCKS32213.64%
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS1263.85%
WASHINGTON CAPITALS42714.81%
WINNIPEG JETS2219.52%

11480214.21%


Related Questions

When a team has a power play at the end of a game and down a goal, why do they not pull the goalie?

The team will not pull the goalie with a power play at the end of the game for two reasons:

  1. They already feel the power play gives them enough of an advantage without having to take the chance of pulling the goalie. Remember: 50% of the time a goalie is pulled the team in the lead will score
  2. The chances of being scored on during the power play may even increase because the team on the penalty kill is allowed to ice the puck with no stoppage in play. This really gives them an opportunity to take a shot at the empty net without any consequence – ie. the faceoff will not come back to the defensive zone.

Can the goalie come back into the net after being pulled?

Yes, the goalie is allowed to go back into the net after being pulled. Often the goalie will go back into the net if there is a stoppage in play, because the team usually does not like to pull the goalie until they have possession of the puck and a faceoff is a 50/50 chance of getting the puck which is not high enough odds to take a chance with no goalie in the net.

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