NHL Coaches Have No Idea When to Pull Their Goalies
We saw it again in Game 7 of the Predators and Jets. Give Peter Laviolette credit for yanking Pekka Rinne, but the shaky goalie should have been removed sooner.
Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Pekka Rinne lost Game 7 for the Nashville Predators. You could not shit your pants any harder if you mixed a laxative with Taco Bell and ventured inside a haunted house. He allowed two horrendous goals in a span of 2:06 midway through the first period that could have been stopped with a properly timed fart. The Predators fell into a 2-0 hole that may as well have been a grave.
The artists formerly known as the Atlanta Thrashers coasted from there to win 5-1 and reach the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. The Winnipeg Jets that have nothing to do with Teemu Selanne will face the Vegas Golden Knights in a seven-game series that should be a classic for Original 31 purists.
What will be lost to time and forgotten by the time Jets fans wake up after a raucous night of celebrating at Salisbury House and Predators fans spend Saturday morning asking elected officials to invade Finland is Peter Laviolette's decision to yank Rinne after the second goal. Coaches rarely give their starting goaltenders the hook that early—never mind Vezina finalists—and many will consider the move to be gutsy and why the Predators even had a chance to come back Thursday night.
I'm here to tell you pulling a goaltender that quickly should be more commonplace and if Laviolette had done it after the first garbage goal, maybe the Predators are in the conference finals instead of the Jets.
NHL games are a race to three goals. Teams averaged 2.97 goals per game in the regular season and three goals were enough to win 46 of 65 playoff games this year before Thursday night. Pretty much whenever an NHL game has been played since 1995, scoring three goals will get you a victory far more often than it will get you a loss.
Yet coaches almost always wait until a goaltender has allowed three goals before yanking him. It's like waiting until your opponent crosses the finish line in a foot race before sitting on the track and changing your sneakers. It's over, man. You waited too long.
Sometimes it's not an easy decision. Maybe one goal was a 2-on-0 and the other goal was an unscreened 50-foot wrist shot. Then what do you do? Well, that second goal should be a strong indication he doesn't have it that night and it's time to try the other guy. Not all two-goal barrages in a first period are created equally.
You also need an ideal goaltending situation. You can't have a stud in his prime and some guy on the bench with a name most of his teammates couldn't spell to win a bet. You need two equals or one guy between the pipes that's shown recently he's always one shot from falling off a cliff and reaching back to pull everyone down with him and someone on the bench that isn't a total mess.
Sometimes it's a no-brainer! Is your goaltender swimming around the crease? Is he doing that thing where he tenses up because he doesn't know where the puck is after it hits him? Did he do what Rinne did in Game 7? Get him out of there before he allows a third goal, you idiot! Nobody cares if your goaltender is battling. The next goal is death about 75 percent of the time! Why are you asking your ice-cold backup goaltender to hold the other team at three goals for at least 40 minutes?! You may as well play 6-on-5 once you're down 3-0.
If you make the change at 2-0, you're leaving your backup some margin for error because if he allows a fourth goal you should pack your stuff and go home.
Laviolette deserves so much praise for committing to this idea in Game 7. He made the quick, correct decision to pull Rinne for Juuse Saros after the second goal and delivered his team a chance to come back. There was no reason to trust Rinne after he had been so uneven throughout the second round and Laviolette was rewarded almost immediately when PK Subban cut the lead to 2-1 in the first period.
Here's the thing—Laviolette was bold but the smart play was to pull Rinne after Tyler Myers scored on what would be considered a video game glitch to make it 1-0, not 128 seconds later when Rinne seemingly lost track of a harmless backhand chance by Paul Stastny that ended up behind him. Every single thing that happened leading to the Myers goal should have been all that was needed to yank Rinne but in a league where pulling a goalie after allowing two goals leaves the broadcasting team befuddled, it was never going to happen.
But it should happen more often. Maybe you don't want to do this during the regular season but sitting on your hands in the postseason shouldn't be an option. Baseball managers—the people who resist new ideas harder than anyone else in sports—figured this out long ago.
In last year's American League Fake Playoff Game That's Just A Play-In Game, Luis Severino of the Yankees didn't have it. The ace of the staff gave up three runs on two home runs in the first inning and that was it. There was no waiting around to see if he would settle down. The Yankees used the bullpen to get the final 26 outs and advanced into the real baseball playoffs with an 8-4 victory.
There seems to be a sentiment that hockey coaches don't want to disrupt the delicate confidence of the fragile goaltender psyche by showing a lack of faith after a bumpy start. But who is more fragile than pitchers? Justin Verlander was on the verge of tears this season because someone clapped too much after a stolen base, yet you can bet your butt if he's stinking it up early in an elimination playoff game, he will be out of there before the game is out of reach. And you can also bet Verlander won't be the least bit shaken the next time he gets the ball.
Every coach's definition of "out of reach" is different but in such an evenly matched series like the one between Winnipeg and Nashville, a second awful Jets goal should have seriously been considered that definition, especially faced with the knowledge that Rinne was either delivering virtuoso performances or playing like someone dipped his leg pads in cement. Myers' goal was a red flag that Rinne was the latter in Game 7.
The all-hands-on-deck approach in baseball should be applied at all times during hockey's postseason. It's not as if turning to your backup goaltender for the final 53 minutes means his legs will be too tired for the next game. You can go right back to him or your starter, unless you think he's psychologically destroyed from being taken out of a game for doing a bad job. Then maybe don't use him in the first place.
The Flyers were faced with this situation in Game 1 of their first-round matchup against the Penguins. Brian Elliott allowed two goals—one objectively terrible, the other not really—yet coach Dave Hakstol decided a goaltender with a history of playoff flops and barely back from a two-month absence due to core muscle surgery could not possibly be removed in a 2-0 game. Yeah, it's not as if Petr Mrazek is heading to the Hall of Fame three years after he retires, but he played a lot down the stretch and you may as well take a shot in that situation.
Hakstol did not take a shot. Evgeni Malkin made it 3-0 on another bad goal (it looked nice but it was bad) and that game was over before the first intermission. Maybe nothing changes if Mrazek takes the net at 2-0, but everything—math, logic, history, his play that night—said waiting until 3-0 was death and Elliott allowing a third goal was inevitable. The Flyers didn't give themselves a chance to come back and they eventually lost a six-game series against the superior but vulnerable Penguins.
Laviolette could have learned from the St. Louis Blues, who went through something similar when facing elimination against the Minnesota Wild in the first around in 2015. Jake Allen had been a mess through five games (stop if you've heard this before) and allowed a shorthanded goal to Zach Parise in the first round that could not have been worse.
Hitchcock not only decided against pulling Allen (for Elliott, weirdly enough), he scoffed at the idea during the bench interview in the second period SECONDS BEFORE ALLEN LET IN A SECOND HORRENDOUS GOAL THAT ENDED THE GAME! LOOK AT THIS!
You have to appreciate Laviolette quickly making the move Thursday but there was precedent established by Hitchcock for not waiting around for the second nightmare goal. Sometimes goalies don't have it. They do everything but scream I DO NOT HAVE IT and you need to identify it when it happens. Rinne was wearing an I DO NOT HAVE IT hat with I DO NOT HAVE IT written on his bare chest in magic marker but Laviolette did not choose to see it until it was too late.
Saros held the Jets at two goals for nearly 30 minutes before allowing the team's third goal so Laviolette's decision worked. The Predators never found a second goal so maybe it wouldn't have mattered if he extracted Rinne from the net at 1-0.
Although, maybe it would have. Maybe one day we will live in a world where a coach is daring enough to [checks notes] remove a clearly ineffective player from a game.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.