I know the premise sounds completely dumb the first time you consider it. Pulling the goalie with the game tied? In a next-goal-wins situation? What’s the advantage there? Goalie pulling is supposed to be saved for only the most desperate of times, not when you have essentially a 50/50 shot at winning the game.
But what if, in regular season overtime, it increased your odds above 50%?
Let me introduce you to the latest strategy of Sergei Fedorov — the NHL Hall of Famer, Detroit Red Wings legend, and current head coach of the KHL’s CSKA Moscow. Fedorov currently has his team in third in the Western Conference, 3 points behind the leading SKA Saint Petersburg. And he owes a couple of those points to the two games he pulled his goalie during the 3-on-3 overtime period.
Sergei Fedorov, coaching CSKA Moscow in the KHL, has started pulling his goalie during 3-on-3 overtime to get a 4-on-3 power play pic.twitter.com/jGqwaSMwEw— Dan (@danmorse_) January 7, 2022
Fedorov has done this successfully twice so far this season — and as far as I can tell has yet to give up an empty netter to boot. On Thursday, his opponent got the drop on him and yanked their goaltender before Fedorov got the chance to pull his own — and it worked for them too. Three times now in the KHL — the consensus best hockey league after the NHL — a team has pulled their goalie in overtime and won because of it.
What the hell is going on here?
Well, the thing about 3-on-3 overtime is that sometimes...it’s a little dull. What started out as a back-and-forth bonanza of 2-on-1’s and teams trading breakaways has morphed into a hockey mini-game where possession is all that matters. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn wrote about this phenomena last year. It turns out taking the puck away from your opponent when there are only 6 total skaters on the ice is a rather tough ask, especially as team strategy evolved to the point where exiting your offensive zone with the puck became a common occurrence. And this then leads to the next point, which Fedorov seems to have discovered — if maintaining puck possession during 3-on-3 play is markedly easier than at 5-on-5, then how easy must it be to maintain possession with a 4-on-3 man advantage?
There’s not a ton of data out there involving 4-on-3 situations, so it’s hard to judge exactly how much of an advantage this might be. Since 2016, teams have spent about 1500 total minutes with this specific advantage, per data from Evolving Hockey. In those 1500 minutes, though, teams with the extra man have outshot their opponents a whopping 942-70. This of course isn’t the same situation as the overtimes we are seeing in Russia — when we see a 4-on-3 in the NHL, one team is killing a penalty and is essentially not making an effort to score. That would change in overtime.
On the other hand, since the team playing down a man wouldn’t actually be killing a penalty in overtime, they wouldn’t be able to shoot for the empty net without risking an icing call, which does somewhat minimize the risk of the goalie pull.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem all that likely that we’ll see this strategy come about in the NHL any time soon. And it’s not because the coaches are afraid to try it or anything, it actually comes down to a difference in rules between the NHL and the KHL. In the NHL, if a team pulls their goalie in overtime and loses, they don’t get the so-called “loser point.” Normally, losing in overtime still gets a team one extra point in the standings, but there’s a specific clause in the overtime rules that eliminates it for victims of empty net goals. From Rule 84.2 of the NHL rulebook:
84.2 Overtime – Regular-season – Extra Attacker - A team shall be allowed to pull its goalkeeper in favor of an additional skater in the overtime period. However, should that team lose the game during the time in which the goalkeeper has been removed, it would forfeit the automatic point gained in the tie at the end of regulation play, except if the goalkeeper has been removed at the call of a delayed penalty against the other team.
Well that really puts a damper on this. Still, maybe some day late in the season, if a team really needs those two points in a fight for a playoff spot, and just one loser point won’t do...who’s to say they won’t try it? After all, we’ve never seen it fail.