The Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders were facing elimination in their first-round series when good fortune finally smiled upon them late in the third period, trailing by a goal.
For the Senators in Game 6, Jacob de la Rose of the Montreal Canadiens was called for tripping at 16:46 of the third.
For the Islanders in Game 7, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals took (quite hilariously) the only penalty of the night, a roughing call at 17:06.
In both cases, the Senators and Islanders had a question to face: If and when to pull their goaltender.
The Senators were facing a locked-in Carey Price, who remained locked-in as the Canadiens won Game 6 by a 2-0 count. The Islanders were facing their own fatigue and offensive ineffectiveness, as the Capitals were en route to a 2-1 win and an NHL record for fewest shots allowed in a Game 7 with 11.
But neither Dave Cameron nor Jack Capuano pulled their goalies to start the power plays, or early on in them. Cameron had an extra skater out for at least the last 30 seconds of the power play. Capuano let nearly the entire man advantage go without pulling Jaroslav Halak.
“We considered pulling him. Good thing we didn’t because they would have scored in about a minute. We had our chances. For the whole series, we couldn’t get [the power play] going,” he said.
Capuano’s precognitive abilities being what they are, these scenarios have always made us mental: Why are some coaches so timid to pull their goaltenders late in the game?
Sure, you have some wack-a-doo guys like Patrick Roy who would probably pull his goalie three minutes into the first if it meant getting a 6-on-4, but most of them are like Cameron and Capuano – even with their backs against the wall, they play it safe.
Yes, we know: No icing on penalty kills. And frankly, pulling your goalie doesn’t work far often than it does.
In the 2014-15 regular season, teams pulled their goalies 1,282 times. They scored 135 goals with an empty net, and gave up a goal 292 times for a goal differential of minus-157. (This includes situations with a delayed penalty on the opposing team.)
But still: 135 times, a team scored a goal with six attackers. It works, even without the benefit of a power play.
A research paper by David Beaudoin and Tim Swartz of Simon Fraser University on the 2007-08 season found that teams playing 6-on-5 score a goal every 8.5 minutes, which is far better than the 28.6 minutes for home teams and 26.2 minutes for road teams at 5-on-5.
Indeed, mathematical studies indicate that the extra-man gambit works often enough to justify it. Andrew Thomas, who studied data from four NHL seasons during the past decade for an article in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis, found that 30 percent of the goals scored with the cage empty were tallied by the attacking side.
War On Ice, the brilliant NHL stats site, ran 100,000 simulations to see whether the trailing team ties the game before the leading team scores another goal into an empty net. They found that the probability the trailing team ties the game is at its apex at 180 seconds remaining in the game when compared to the probability that the other team scores.
Going back to the Senators and Islanders, it’s understandable that Cameron didn’t quite yet pull Craig Anderson with a penalty called at 16:46. The Senators outshot the Canadiens 14-4 in the period, and had carried the play as they pressured Carey Price for the equalizer. It was one of those games that felt like they could go the two minutes and then still have enough left for 1:14 of frantic 6-on-5 hockey in an attempt to tie it. Especially on home ice.
But Capuano blew it. Sure, this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but no more so than the coach claiming he made the right call because the Capitals put a shot on Halak while shorthanded.
The fact is that the Islanders were dead in the water in Game 7 on the road offensively. One soft Frans Nielsen goal on Braden Holtby was the extent of their attack. A 6-on-4 power play was, in our opinion, their last best chance to try to tie the game again.
Factor in that most 6-on-5 goals are scored with 180 seconds left and the Islanders got a power play at 17:06, and it’s hard to understand why he didn’t get aggressive.
Well, OK, not that hard: He’s damned if he does and significantly less damned if he doesn’t. Pulling Halak is the bold move, while keeping Halak in is the safe play.
As John Tortorella famously said: “Safe is death.”
And the Islanders’ postseason hopes are dead.
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