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Unguarded Optimism

NHL coaches, based on advanced analytics and one gambling ex-goalie, are emptying their nets earlier and more often than ever before. The result: The craziest minutes in sports are even crazier


PLAYOFF BEARDS serve as both a form of contraception, we suspect, and a tonsorial reminder that the intensity of NHL action is ratcheted up in the postseason. That fervor is further distilled in the waning moments of close games. Unlike the typical denouement of an NBA contest, diluted by endless timeouts, free throws and sideline reports, the end of a close NHL playoff game is nail-biting, breathtaking, excruciating and ... incarcerating?

"I've never been to prison," says Kings forward Justin Williams, "but it's kinda prison rules out there. You do whatever you can to survive."

Going into this bicoastal, big-market Stanley Cup finals between L.A. and New York, we've already seen 23 games decided in overtime. Leads are not safe: On 13 occasions the winning team clawed back from a deficit of two goals or more.

The most exciting minute(s) in sport have added voltage this postseason, thanks to the latest trend to take hold in the league: Coaches in need of a game-tying goal are pulling their goaltenders more frequently and earlier than ever. Statistical analysis indicates that the extra-skater tactic has a significantly better chance of working if you give it enough time—by pulling the goaltender with three or four minutes to go, for instance, instead of 60 or 90 seconds, which had served as the outermost limit for emptying one's net since Toe Blake and Punch Imlach were matching wits a half century ago.

For this dramatic uptick in late-game, six-on-five, heart-in-your-throat hockey, we have first-year Avalanche coach Patrick Roy to thank. A Hall of Fame netminder, Roy used to stew in the crease late in games in which his team was trailing, thinking, Take me out!

Now in a position to heed his own advice, Roy has behaved like a kind of Québécois Captain Hook, swapping out his goalie for an extra attacker with an abandon unprecedented in the staid fraternity of NHL coaches. Even though his Avs bowed out in the first round, Roy has nonetheless left his swashbuckling stamp on the tournament. Everywhere you looked, coaches—including Darryl Sutter of the Kings, a man seldom accused of progressivism—were emulating Roy's early-and-often approach to goalie-pulling.

Caveat emptor: It's a gamble that often backfires. Down two to the Canadiens in Game 5, the Rangers pulled the goalie with 4:24 left. Montreal scored an empty-net goal at 4:17. Through 88 games there have been 25 empty netters. To improve his odds, well-traveled ex--NHL coach Dave King would instruct his players, "Get the puck to the net, jam it in there, and if it's close to the line—get your hands in the air! Celebrate!"

Rife with desperation though this strategem is, rule changes over the last two decades have made it a tad less risky. For decades skaters who worked their way into scoring position—that is, into the area in front of the net—in the final minutes of NHL games would pay in blood. Ex--NHL goalie Brian Hayward would remind his teammates, "Anything goes."

The more overt muggings came to an end nine years ago, when the NHL cracked down on restraining fouls. Also, since 2005 a team that ices the puck has not been allowed a line change—the substitution of fresh players—before the ensuing face-off. That often results in fatigued, outnumbered defenders for teams that take long-range chances at empty nets. And when you have the huevos to pull the goalie good and early, King points out, "it's more like a power play: You can play more puck control; you don't have to take the low-percentage, bad-angle shot. You're moving the puck, you're creating, they're getting tired."

King, now a development coach for the Coyotes, has also worked in the Russian Super League, where some coaches, he recalls, refused to pull the goaltender: "There was something more honorable in losing close than losing by a couple."

To hell with that, says Roy, and he is right. Why pass up the chance to stay alive, just to ensure that you look more lifelike lying in the open casket at your own wake? No matter how many goals you lose by, you're still dead.

Everywhere you looked, coaches—including Darryl Sutter of the Kings, a man seldom accused of progressivism—were emulating Roy's early- and-often approach.

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