Friday, April 22, 2022

Answering the dumb questions you never thought to ask about empty net goals

Close your eyes and picture your favorite team scoring an empty net goal.

You probably didn’t have to strain your imagination too much, since ENGs are reasonably common in the NHL. Every team has at least a few this year, and teams like the Blues, Penguins and Flames have 20 or more. We know the drill, so I’m pretty I can guess what you imagined: Your team is defending a lead late in regulation, battling for the puck in their own end before finally sending it the length of the ice into an empty net to seal the win. That’s what an empty net goal looks like.

But not always. Let’s get weird.

This is the sort of thing I think about when the playoffs haven’t started yet but most of the spots are locked up. So today, we’re going to dive into the history of weird empty net goals. Here’s everything you didn’t even know you wanted to ask about the most disrespected goal in the NHL record books.

How often does an empty net goal turn out to be the game winner?

This seems like a straightforward question until you think about it. A game-winning goal in the NHL as defined as the one that gives a team one more goal than the other team eventually ends up with. So if the losing team scores three times, the winning goal is the other team’s fourth, regardless of whether that goal makes it 4-3 or 4-0 or when in the game it’s scored. Since the typical empty net goal comes at the end of regulation, when the team scoring is already ahead by one or two and the game is about to end, would one ever end up going into the record books as the winner?

Yes, as it turns out, and it’s not especially uncommon. According to the hockey-reference database (which we’ll be using for all of these stats), it’s happened 148 times in NHL history. We can divide those goals into two categories, and those are going to be important the further down this road we go.

The first type of empty net goal is the one we’ve already described, where one team pulls its goalie for an extra attacker, almost always very late in regulation. In those cases, the empty net goal can’t be the winner unless the losing team scores again. For example, Team A is up 2-1 and Team B pulls their goalie. Team A scored into the empty net to make is 3-1, then Team B scores a goal to draw back to 3-2. That makes the empty net goal the winner.

This doesn’t happen all that often, but it’s certainly not rare. We’ve seen it 13 times this season, most recently when Ivan Barbashev of the Blues did it in an April 2 win over the Flames. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin did it in the same week back in early March, which was fun. Mario Lemieux is the career leader with three empty net game-winning goals, one of which we’ll get to in a bit. But so far, nothing all that crazy here.

Bonus weird fact: The goalie who gets pulled still takes the loss even though he wasn’t in net for the winning goal. Wins and losses are based on the “goalie of record” when the winning goal is scored, but he doesn’t have to be on the ice at the time.

The other type of empty net goal is far more rare, but way more fun. It comes when a team has pulled its goaltender on a delayed penalty, then accidentally scores on its own net. Those can come at any time during a game, which means they’ll occasionally hold up as a game winner. As an added bonus, sometimes those goals end up being credited to the opposing goalies. That’s how Martin Brodeur has a game-winning goal, the only goaltender that’s true of. Eat that, Ron Hextall.

That accidental own-goal scenario leads us to our next question…

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