In an interview earlier this week Jarome Iginla(notes) was discussing a play from the opening round of the Stanley Cup 2004 playoffs (1:20 mark) when he narrowly missed an empty net to seal Game 7. The puck went back the other way and Matt Cooke(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks scored in the final seconds to take the game to overtime. The Calgary Flames went on to win the game in OT, but missing that empty net almost cost him his only chance at the Stanley Cup thus far.
Just the other night San Jose Sharks rookie Logan Couture Tweeted: "Oh and if I get 10 thousand followers I promise I'll hit the empty net from now on." Guys beat themselves up about missing the freebies, but more importantly, they know how crucial it is that they bury them for the team's sake.
Just ask Patrick Stefan:
I've been a part of a missed ENG meltdown or two in my day as well - albeit, never one as direct as Stefan's, but they're all ugly in their own way. The problem is that the free "G" on your stat sheet can be awfully tempting. In college it happened on two separate occasions in the same year - a guy on our team fired at the empty net without gaining the red line and missed (even if there's only five seconds left, it's still a major faux pas to shoot from back there). Sure enough icing was called, and in both cases, the game was all knotted up mere seconds later.
If you're going to go for the empty netter, there are a couple simple rules.
First, as the story above illustrates, gain the damn red line. Putting the team at risk for your own personal gain is about the most selfish thing you can do as a hockey player, and there's no better example of that then knowing you may stop the clock and bring the faceoff down into your own zone if you miss, but still saying "ah, eff it, I want this."
Next, never miss far-side wide, especially on a hard shot. I pulled off that untalented feat against Minnesota-Duluth in college with a full minute left in the game, wrapped the puck around the boards of the DECC like I was running Duluth's breakout, and even managed to trap myself deep in their zone. They spent the next minute taking turns wiring slapshots off goal posts until we eventually escaped with the win. I, however, did not escape the fate of being resigned to the bench the next time we were up a goal late.
Empty netters are hockey's natural way of rewarding the team's best defensive players, and they also provide a nice cherry-on-top for any player who brought his A-game that night and deserved those crucial minutes of ice time.
The only problem with ENGs is jealousy. Undeniably, the goals are kind of cheesy. Occasionally a player will find a way to tack on a bunch in the same year, and you hate to be neck-and-neck with a guy in team scoring (and don't kid yourself, that stuff matters to competitive athletes) and he's potted four empty netters (see: Brandon Dubinsky(notes)). Obviously, there's some skill that goes into scoring them, but for the most part, it's a lot luck and timing. You're kinda sorta supposed to be able to hit a target that's six feet wide from anywhere on the damn ice surface.
Milan Lucic(notes) leads the Boston Bruins in goals, but he also has a league-leading five empty-netters, roughly 20-percent of his goal total. That's almost asterisk worthy. I'm sure when he and Patrice Bergeron(notes) - six goals behind Lucic - joke around about it, Bergeron isn't shy to throw out the "five ENG" comment.
And speaking of jealousy, it's on the other bench too. When it's late in the game and your team is down a goal, you know the pulled tender is coming. So who gets to be that lucky sixth guy? There isn't a person sitting there who doesn't want it to be them. And when you don't get picked, there's nothing left to do but sit there and be bitter. You root for your team, of course, but any good player wants to be the guy in the action when it counts. Unless your team pulls out the rare last second goal, the game is basically over for you, the final buzzer may as well have gone.
But when you do get to be out there, goalie pulled and pressing, there is no more frustrating stat than the fact that you can get a minus for getting scored on in with tender in net. You shouldn't be able to get a plus either; that's a trade guys would gladly make. It's a whole different game situation - teams score on empty nets way more often than the other team pulls out a goal, so that means a team's best players eat four or five minuses over the course of the year, which can wind up being misleading.
I remember skating back up the ice watching the other team with solid possession, just hoping our last defenseman back would turn into Henrik Lundqvist(notes) and make a big save for all of our personal stats sake. Losing happens, but you'd rather not take the extra punch in the gut at the end of the game.
Being on the ice in that last minute of a close game is thrilling no matter which side you're on. When you get the chance to ice the game for your team and get a free goal, it's even sweeter.
Just don't miss. It's come back to haunt more than a few people.