By Rob Ficiur
In Game #3 of the Pacific Division finals, Calgary Flames forward Michael Backland scored in overtime to give the Flames what would be their only win in the Anaheim series. The comeback started late in the third period, with the Calgary Flames were trailing the Anaheim Ducks 3-2. With just under two minutes left in the game, the Flames pulled their goalie. At first it looked like the effort would be in vain as the Ducks cleared the puck several times. With less than twenty seconds left in the third period Flames rookie Johnny Geaudreau took the puck across the line. What was he going to do? He skated up and snapped the tying goal over the Ducks’ goalie.
The Comeback Flames led the NHL with 13 wins when trailing after the first period and were third in the NHL when trailing after two periods with 10 wins. The Flames won three playoff games they had trailed after two periods.
Like Game #3 many of these comebacks involved pulling the goalie in the dying minute(s) of a game.
No other team sport has anything quite like pulling the goalie. In football the offensive team has only six eligible receivers to throw to no matter what time of the game. In a last minute scoring attempt teams can run a Hail Mary throw where most of the receivers go to one spot and the ball is thrown down field to the end zone hoping that one of their players can catch it. Like pulling the goalie the Hail Mary is a low percentage play, but when it works fans remember it forever.
The closest thing to pulling the goalie in baseball is to have the infield play in. In late innings with a runner on third base the defensive team knows it cannot give up another run. A ground ball hit to these infielders will now give them a chance to throw home to get the runner out. The risk of bringing the infielders in is significant. A ball hit beyond the drawn in infielders will score the runner. On the offensive side of the ball the closest thing to pulling the goalie is to put in a pinch hitter for a weaker batter. With only four bench players there are usual no superstars on the bench to bring in to pinch hit. That is why World Series pinch hit home
runs like the one from LA Dodgers Kirk Gibson in 1988 is legendary. Gibson, the 1988 MVP was injured before the World series started. His only World Series at bat was that pinch hit home run bottom of the ninth inning in Game #1.
In basketball there are two late game strategies a team can try. The full court press can cause turn overs. However, it is just as likely to lead to easy baskets once the offensive team breaks the press. The other strategy that goes with the full court press is to foul the offensive team once they get the ball. The defending team is giving the other team two free foul shots hoping they will miss; and then they will come back and score. Like pulling the goalie, it does not work very often, but it can work so teams try it. You may as well lose by five points as lose by one.
Pulling the goalie is an accepted last minute (or two) strategy for NHL hockey teams. Finding specific statistics on the success of this strategy was difficult to find. Since the NHL does not track it I had to find articles from 2011 to give some statistical success rates for pulling the goalie. In 2010-2011 goalies were pulled in 747 games for a total of 841 minutes. In that time 246 goals were scored into the empty net while 79 goals were scored by the team that pulled the goalie. Roughly about one game in three there is an empty net goal; and one game in ten the team that pulls the goalie scores a goal (which usually ties the game).
For most of us pulling the goalie is not about the stats and the formulas. It is about does our team have one last chance to tie the game? One of the first games I ever remember watching was on April 5 1970, the last game of that regular season. On that night the Montreal Canadiens needed to win or score five goals to make the playoffs. Down 5-2 with nine minutes to go in the third period, the Canadiens pulled their goalie. If they were not going to win, they would try to score three more goals. Chicago scored five empty
net goals and Montreal scored zero and in the end Montreal missed the playoffs for the first time since 1948.
As a rookie hockey fan I thought it was neat that Montreal pulled the goalie so early, giving “my” Black Hawks many chances to score. No matter the background history to the game, once the goalie has been pulled a new level of excitement comes to the ice.because you never know what will happen.