- Craig Custance
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DENVER -- Avalanche coach Patrick Roy was once coaching a bantam team during a hockey tournament and his team was down a few goals when it got a 5-on-3 power play.
He saw a chance to change the complexion of the game, so he pulled his goalie. In the second period.
His team scored a couple of goals to make it interesting, but not enough to win that game. Another time as a junior coach, he said he pulled a goalie with 17 minutes remaining in the game.
If we think Game 1's daring call to pull Semyon Varlamov with 3:01 remaining in the third period, trailing by a goal to the Wild, is going to be the most aggressive maneuver in his first career NHL playoff series as a coach, we could be mistaken.
He likes to put pressure on the other team, in this case Minnesota, and his own group of skilled, young players completely feeds off it.
Three minutes were left in Game 1. It could be more down the line in this series if he sees a matchup he likes or spots a Wild team gassed late in the game.
"Sometimes just go with the feelings. If guys have been on the ice a long time, you think it's a good time," Roy said after a Friday off-ice session for the Avalanche regulars, getting rest after an exhausting but thrilling 5-4 overtime win. "I'm looking at this more than anything else. If we have the momentum, I'm not afraid to do it early. Even if it can backfire on you."
And it nearly did. Erik Johnson saved a potential empty-net goal by inches and it wasn't lost on the Wild that Roy's maneuver, which is being hailed today, is one that nearly didn't work yesterday.
"Certainly we had an opportunity to score. We had an opportunity to get a puck out in the end," Wild coach Mike Yeo said following Friday's practice. "It worked, no question. ... We made a mistake and that's why they scored a goal."
Ryan O'Reilly was part of the group that stepped on the ice with 3:01 remaining and didn't leave until Paul Stastny scored with 14 seconds left. He said the aggressive goalie pull changes the mentality of both teams. By doing it with a few minutes left rather than more conventional 90 seconds left, the Avalanche have the time to be patient and look for areas where they could try to exploit their opponent.
"You have that much time on the clock, you don't have to force plays too quick. We know we can play the odds, try to find two-on-ones, little holes, you don't have to force plays to score," O'Reilly said. "If they do clear the puck, there's panic [with a traditional goalie pull]. When you've got three minutes on the clock, it's 'Let's take it back, regroup, let's wait until we find our hole and we'll go back out.'"
And O'Reilly sees a shift in how the Avalanche are defended in these scenarios. Opponents go in full penalty-kill mode, which sometimes puts them on their heels in a game they might have otherwise controlled until that point.
It's not a new notion. Dallas Eakins was aggressive on when to pull goalies in Edmonton and it was a weapon in Roy's arsenal all season. In a December game against the Canucks, Roy pulled Jean-Sebastien Giguere with five minutes remaining in an eventual loss. After the game, he said he wanted to send the message to his players that they should never quit. It's a message they've received well this season.
Against the Bruins in March, Roy pulled his goalie with 4:46 remaining. Another loss.
This was the biggest victory for his strategy and it backs research that suggests NHL coaches are much too conservative on when to pull their goalies. David Beaudoin, an assistant professor at Quebec's Laval University, and Tim B. Swartz, a professor in the department of statistics and actuarial science at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, ran simulations and came to the conclusion that NHL coaches weren't being mathematically prudent by waiting until the final minute or so to pull their goalies.
Their research suggested that pulling a goalie earlier not only increases a team's chances of scoring at a pace significant enough to earn more points over the course of a regular season, it increases the likelihood the team will get a power play out of the deal. With more than 4 million games simulated for their study, the result was that the current traditional coaching strategy was consistently outperformed by a model that resembles Roy's strategy.
So was a statistical analysis the genesis of Roy's strategy at lower levels?
"No. I never look at statistics, to be quite honest," Roy said. "I think sometimes -- just go with the feelings."
It could have backfired, and that wouldn't have changed a thing. With this strategy he's taking a big-picture approach.
"If you do it 10 times and on the 10 times you score four goals, it's 40 percent," he said. "It's pretty big."
It's a decision that looms big early on in this series. Heading into Game 2, how the Wild overcome losing a game that was so close to their grasp will determine where this series is headed.
"It has to affect a team when you're getting tied with 13 seconds left in the game and losing in overtime," Roy said. "This is a game you felt you had. This is a game you felt you were under control. That has to hurt a bit. I'm sure they're going to do a really good job to get their team ready for [Saturday]."
If we think Game 1's daring call to pull Semyon Varlamov with 3:01 remaining in the third period, trailing by a goal to the Wild, is going to be the most aggressive maneuver in Patrick Roy's first career NHL playoff series as a coach, we could be mistaken, writes ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance.