Behind The Bench
In close hockey matches, there are plenty of reasons for staying until the final buzzer. We’ve all seen, and maybe even played in, games where a last-second comeback earned a team a tie, or a shot at victory in overtime. And that’s why clubs trailing by a goal, and sometimes even two, will try to pull their goalie in favor of an extra attacker.
The thinking with this technique is that the team which is trailing will have a better chance at getting the equalizer, or cutting its deficit, with an extra skater on the ice instead of a netminder. But pulling your goalie is a double-edged sword: it can, and frequently does, backfire.
Should the side with the lead get control of the puck, it could easily pad its advantage with an empty-net goal. With the goalie out, the opposition has a gaping hole—providing no defenders have retreated to guard the empty net—to shoot at.
There is no set time when a club is allowed to pull its goalie. In fact, there’s no rule which stipulates teams must utilize a netminder at any point of the game. If they so desire, squads could play the entire 60 minutes with six skaters and no puckstopper. I don’t know that it’s ever happened, but NBA-type scores would no doubt result.
Besides the final stages of a game, teams will often pull their goalie a few other times during a match. But in these instances, they’ll face significantly lowers risks of allowing a goal.
For example, goalkeepers scramble out of the net and to their bench when the action is ongoing and a penalty has been signaled against the opposition. No, these aren’t water breaks. The goalie is rushing to the bench to be replaced by a skater during the delayed penalty call.
Pulling the goalie in this case isn’t much of a gamble. That’s because the referee will blow the play dead as soon as a player from the team being penalized controls the puck. The only way this move can turn sour, which does happen on rare occasions, is by having a player inadvertently put the puck into his own empty net.
Those who have watched their share of hockey games have probably also seen a team pull its goalie with a couple of seconds remaining in either the first or second periods. This usually occurs when a faceoff is set for deep in the offensive zone.
The thinking in this case is that the team which has pulled its goalie can put on an extra skater and perhaps get a quality shot on net—and maybe a goal—before the period expires. Even if the team which is goalie-less loses the draw, there’s a very slim chance the opposition will have sufficient time to fire the puck the length of the ice and score. Especially with an extra skater covering the blueline.
“I think a guide rule is if you’re down by two goals you pull him with about two minutes remaining,” says L.A. Kings Head Choach Andy Murray. “Or if you’re down by one goal, you’re looking at the one-minute mark.”
Another determining factor is the whereabouts of the puck. Obviously it makes no sense for a squad to pull its netminder if the opposition has control of the puck.
Know when to go
“Before pulling your goalie, the puck has to get deep in the other team’s zone, preferably below the offensive circles,” Murray says. “Or if you’re coming out of your own zone, you should be under full control.”
Throughout his career, Murray has had occasion to pull his goalie countless times. Two of these instances stick out in his mind.
While coaching Kloten, a club on Switzerland’s pro circuit, Murray found his side trailing late in a game. He then told the referee he planned to switch his goalies.
In an effort to get some more rest time for the players he wanted on the ice in the dying stages of the game, Murray instructed his backup goalie to take his time putting on his equipment. After the goalie had finally geared up, Murray told him to remain on the bench.
When the referee skated over to the Kloten bench to find out what was happening, Murray explained he had decided to put on an extra skater for the goalie he had just replaced. This strategic move was allowed to stand, and Kloten played out the match with an extra skater.
Another contest which sticks out in Murray’s mind was played in 1979. At the time he was coaching the Brandon Travellers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
The Travellers were trailing the Dawson Kings 7-1 in a playoff game. With about 14 minutes left in the third period, Murray pulled his goalie. And he continued to pull then replace his netminder throughout the remainder of the game.
“You never give up”
“I kept pulling our goalie every time we had the puck in the offensive zone,” Murray recalls.
With its netminder on the bench, Brandon managed to score five unanswered goals.
“I was just trying to show them you never give up,” Murray says. “The score could have easily been 8-1, quickly. But they missed a lot of empty nets. A lot of times they were called for icing. Besides, if you lose, it doesn’t matter if you lose 8-1 or 10-1.”
The Travellers did lose, despite the excitement, by a score of 7-6. But in choosing an empty-net strategy to try and get back into the game, Murray certainly gave the spectators their money’s worth.
“The fans just couldn’t believe it was happening,” Murray says. “In fact, the next day they replayed the last 15 minutes on the local radio several times.”
Murray doubts he’ll be able to utilize this technique in the NHL.
“Hopefully our team will never be down 7-1,” he says. “But even if we were, I don’t think we’d pull our goalie then. The shooters in the NHL are a little better (than in junior).”
Whether the strategy of pulling your goalie to tie the game works or not, it is another of the dramatic moments unique to hockey. l
Sam Laskaris is a freelance sportswriter in Toronto.
This first appeared in the 12/1994 issue of Hockey