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Why the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs set a new empty-net goals record

Why the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs set a new empty-net goals record

NEW YORK — With two minutes remaining in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and his team down by a goal, Edmonton Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen sprinted to his team’s bench. About a minute and a half later, Gabriel Landeskog sent the puck into that abandoned net. It clinched the win for the Colorado Avalanche. But it also added to an unexpected NHL record during the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Through 76 games, there have been 41 empty-net goals scored, setting an NHL postseason record. According to the league, the previous mark was 36 empty-netters, which was set twice: in the 2017-18 season in 84 games, then matched in the 24-team 2019-20 postseason in 130 games.

Last season, there was one player with multiple empty-net goals: Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon with three. This season, through two rounds, there are already four: Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev, New York Rangers forward Andrew Copp, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ondrej Palat and Oilers forward Evander Kane.

In total, 37 different players have at least one empty-net goal in this postseason.

What has led to this record number of empty-netters? Here are four theories:

Goals up, empty-net goals up

In the regular season, the NHL saw its highest goals-per-game average since the 1995-96 season (6.29 in both seasons). That scoring surge produced some incredible numbers: a 60-goal season for Auston Matthews, with four different players hitting at least 50 goals; the Florida Panthers scoring 4.11 goals per game, the highest average for a team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins; and final scores on some nights that looked more like MLB than NHL.

It also produced an NHL record for empty-net goals in the regular season: 477 in 1,312 games, according to the NHL. That broke the previous record of 408 empty-net goals set in 2018-19, which itself broke the record of 368 empty netters in 2015-16.

The scoring boom has carried over to the postseason. At 6.42 goals per game through 76 games, this is the highest-scoring postseason since 1992-93 (6.84). And with the Oilers and Avalanche playing at least two more times after 18 combined goals in Games 1 and 2, who knows how high that could climb?

Goalies being pulled earlier

Fun fact: The top 13 regular seasons in empty-net goals have been since 2007-08. Some of this is a function of expansion: more games, more goals. That includes this season, as the expansion Seattle Kraken pumped up the total games played from 1,271 to 1,312 in a non-pandemic-interrupted season. But some of it is because of tactical changes that coaches have made on when to pull a goalie.

It has been well documented that teams are pulling their goalies earlier than ever before. The trend was first noted in 2014-15, as teams down by two goals or more began pulling their goalies on average with over two minutes remaining in the game for the first time in the NHL.

A big influence here is the analytics community, which had been screaming for years that pulling a goalie earlier greatly increased the chances for a team tying a game or cutting into a deficit. As FiveThirtyEight reported in 2015, one statistical model showed that pulling the goalie with 2½ minutes to go gives a team a 19-20% chance of tying the game, but if a coach waits until the one-minute mark, those chances drop to 17%.

Still, NHL coaches swear that the analytics aren’t the reason for their goalie-pull strategies.

“It’s not an analytics thing for me. They think I should have had him out at the six-minute mark or something,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour told ESPN. “It is a feel thing for me.”

New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant agreed.

“It’s the gut for me. If the score is 6-5, I might wait a little longer. If it’s 1-0 or 2-1, I might go a little quicker. That’s the way I do it,” he said.

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Pulling goalies even earlier in playoff games

With goalie pulls becoming much more aggressive in the regular season, how does that change for the playoffs?

According to Stathletes data, teams are even more aggressive in pulling their goalie within the confines of a seven-game series. The average pull time for a goalie in the regular season, with a team trailing by one goal, was 1 minute, 4 seconds left in regulation. The average pull time in the playoffs for a team trailing by one goal: 1:19.

In the regular season, a team trailing by two goals pulled their goalie with 1:44 left in regulation on average. In the playoffs, that increased to 1:56 left in the game. Clearly, even in games in which teams need two goals to tie, they’re going for it.

But as Brind’Amour said, there are times when a coach must admit the game is out of reach.

“Down two, for sure. Down three? It’s a little different,” he said.

There are fewer overtime games

There can’t be empty-net goals without an empty net. One of this postseason’s peculiarities is a lack of overtime games through two rounds. In 76 games, there have only been 11 overtime games (14%). That’s down from 32% last season and down from 2019-20 (22%) and 2018-19 (20%). It’s the lowest total since 2017-18, when there were just 10 overtime games (12%) and 36 empty-net goals — at the time, an NHL record.

Until it was shattered in this postseason, in which the goals are pouring in — whether there’s a goalie in the crease or not.

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