Empty Net in Hockey Explained – Why Goalies Leave Their Net

Posted on May 16, 2024 by Dan Kent
empty hockey net

Have you ever been watching a hockey game when the goalie suddenly decides to up and leave? Where's he going!? Who's going to play goalie!? 

First, calm down… he has his reasons, and we're here to fill you in on what exactly is happening.

Why is there an empty net in hockey?

Often when a team is trailing late in a game, the coach will replace the goalkeeper with an additional skater to increase the team's odds of scoring a game-tying goal. This is usually referred to as "pulling the goalie".

Why does a team get an extra player when pulling the goalie?

By hockey rules, an unpenalized team can have six players on the ice at any time. No rule stipulates that one of those players must be a goaltender.

Usually, when a goalie vacates the goal, it's because his coach has "pulled" the goalie in favor of an extra attacker.

There are other times in which the goalie leaves the net empty, so let's get into those, too.

Two key reasons why teams pull their goalie in ice hockey

Down late in a game

As described above, a common hockey strategy when trailing in the game's final minutes is to pull the goalie in favor of an extra skater off the bench for an extra shot at scoring. 

While a team without a goaltender is more likely to surrender an empty netter, they're also more likely to score the game-tying goal with an additional offensive player on the ice. It will allow them to get more shots on goal and more scoring opportunities.

If you're going to lose by a goal, you may as well lose by two and at least give your team the best opportunity possible to score a tying goal.

Sometimes the strategy works. Other times it fails miserably. It's a gamble, but a study by Meghan Hall over at hockey-graphs.com shows that statistics say it's a wise move:

The usage of the strategy is not debated because there is a measurable goal-scoring advantage in having six skaters on the ice against five.

Unsurprisingly, the goal-scoring rate is similar to a 5v4 power play. Instead, the debate around goalie pulling comes around to when to pull the goalie. More time at 6v5 gives a bigger chance of scoring a goal but the goal-scoring rate against an empty net is particularly high.

From The State of Goalie Pulling in The NHL by Meghan Hall

Another study from 2018 by math professor Aaron Brown and hedge fund manager Clifford Asness found similar results utilizing historical stats.

Here's a compilation video of when pulling the goalie didn't pay off!

Pulling the goalie on a delayed penalty

Empty Hockey Net

Sometimes you'll see a hockey team goaltender leaving the net in favor of an additional skater midway through the game, even when the team is in the lead. This isn't an example of pulling the goalie to tie the game, so what gives?

To understand why the goalie would leave the net in this situation, you must first understand how penalties are administered in hockey. When a player commits an illegal play, tripping, for instance, the referee does not stop the play immediately.

Instead, the referee will raise their left arm in the air to indicate a delayed penalty. Then once the penalized team gains possession of the puck, the play will be stopped.

So, because the offending team cannot gain possession and score a goal, the team on the offensive does not need a goaltender. 

In such cases, the coach may pull the goalie in favor of an additional skater until the play is stopped and the penalty is assessed.

However, remember that the team can still score on their own empty net, a complete disaster, so they do have to be careful. Here is a video of it happening.

Fleeing the scene

The two instances described above are the only two situations in which a goalie leaves the net for a significant amount of time. There are, however, moments when the goaltender leaves his net to make a play on the ice.

Usually, the goalie will stop and play the puck from behind his net to prevent the opposition from making a play deep in the offensive zone, but this takes just seconds to execute.

In almost all cases where the goaltender is fleeing the net, remember that he's being instructed to by his coach, and it's usually done to help improve his team's odds of scoring a goal.

Who has the most career empty net goals?

Currently, Wayne Gretzky has the most career empty-net goals with 56. This record is nowhere near being broken, as the second-highest player is Marian Hossa, who is retired with 40 empty net goals. The closest to Gretzky in terms of active players now is Alex Ovechkin, but he will unlikely touch the great ones 56.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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