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 is 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 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 typically 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 it 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 …
How often do we see empty net goals in the first or second period?
Not often, and never on purpose, but it does happen thanks to those delayed penalty screwups. The most recent was this season, when Marcus Foligno got credit for a Capitals own goal in the second period.
That’s one of 14 times a team has scored into its own net in the first or second, with the names of the “scorers” ranging from Hall of Famers like Paul Coffey and Mark Recchi to guys like David Shaw and Boyd Gordon, with goalie Damian Rhodes thrown in for good measure.
Bonus weird fact: Other than Rhodes, the only other goaltender credited with a goal that didn’t happen in the third period is Brodeur, back on March 21, 2013. But that one came with poor Dan Ellis frantically trying to scramble back into the netmaking it the only goalie goal in NHL history that actually didn’t also go into the record book as an empty net goal.
Since we’re into some rarified territory here, you might want to go one further and ask about the earliest empty net goal in NHL history. That one gets a little more complicated than you’d expect, because goals that are counted from suspended games (like this one between the Ducks and Blues a few years ago) are sometimes noted as empty netters at 0:00 of the first period. But assuming we don’t count those, the earliest empty net goal in an NHL game belongs to noted sniper Yannick Weber, who got credit for this goal just 4:40 into a 2014 game between the Flames and Canucks.
How often does a team score an empty net goal in a game that they lose?
Again, this one wouldn’t have made much sense a few minutes ago. But now that we know how weird these things can get, it seems possible. And sure enough, it’s happened, although now we’re down to just seven occurrences in the history of the league.
As you’d expect, most of these involve own goals. We saw a memorable example in 2016, when Troy Brouwer got credit for Loui Eriksson’s auspicious debut with the Canucks. Vancouver still won, so Brouwer joined the small group of players to score an ENG and take an L on the same night.
And yes, that’s the Flames and Canucks again. They seem to like to be involved in these sorts of goals.
Bonus weird fact: Brouwer was also the guy who took the original penalty that caused the Canucks to pull their goalie, which he still had to serve. Lots of guys have had a goal and a penalty on the same play, thanks to post-goal scrums and such. But Brouwer is one of the very few to ever take the penalty first and then “score.” (But not the only one; Buffalo’s Cory Conacher is another.)
But that’s not the most recent example of an empty-netter coming in a loss. That one came just two years ago, and it made its own kind of history. On January 5, 2020, the Shark’s and capitals met in a game that had this wild finish:
That’s Logan Couture scoring into the empty net, and it opened the door for the Capitals to become the only team to ever pull its goalie for an extra attacker at the end of regulation, give up an empty net goal, and still come back to win. No screwups, no own goals, just a ridiculous collapse that we’d never seen before in over 100 years of history.
That’s pretty embarrassing for the Sharks, but at least Couture can take some pride in joining the ENG-in-a-loss club with some other big names, including two Hall of Famers. Those would be goaltender Billy Smith, who became the first goalie credited with a goal in 1979 but still lost the game, as well as Gordie Howe in 1970. Howe’s goal earned another distinction, in that he joined the club along with teammate Nick Libett, making the Red Wings the only team in history to score two empty-netters in a game they lost.
That probably shouldn’t be possible, and it definitely needs its own separate category …
What’s the record for most empty net goals in one game?
The answer: Too many.
Related question: What was the single dumbest day of empty net action in NHL history?
That would be April 5, 1970, the final day of the 1969-70 season. the rangers and Canadians went into that day fighting for the final playoff spot in the East Division, with New York having stumbled down the stretch and on the verge of coughing up what had seemed like a sure thing only a week or two earlier.
With each team set to play their final game, Montreal held a two-point lead. More importantly, they also held the tiebreaker, which back then was goals scored. (Yes, goals scored, not goals differential. This turns out to be important.) Montreal was up by five in that category, meaning the Rangers’ only hope was for three things to happen that day: they win, Montreal loses and they outscore the Habs by at least five.
Not great odds, but the good news was that they were playing the Red Wings, who didn’t have much to play for. The Rangers came out flying, scoring four in the first period and three in the second to take a 7-3 lead. Chasing even more offense, Rangers coach Emile Francis started pulling his goalie late in the third, even though his team was winning. It made sense — remember, he didn’t care how many goals he gave up as long as they won — but it led to Howe and Libett getting those two late empty net goals in a losing cause. The Rangers ended up winning 9-5.
The Montreal game was later in the day, and they were facing a Hawks team that did have something to play for. Still, the Habs had two doors into the playoffs: win by any score, or lose while scoring at least five goals. That second door seemed to close early in the third when Chicago took a 5-2 lead, so Montreal coach Claude Ruel started pulling his goalie midway through the third in a desperate attempt to get his team some goals. The result: a ridiculous five empty net goals for the Hawks, a single-game record that will almost certainly never be broken. The Habs lost 10-2.
This is why we don’t use goals scored as a tiebreaker anymore, in case anyone was wondering.
Bonus weird fact: This was the only time the Canadiens missed the playoffs in the 47 years between 1948 and 1995.
And yeah, speaking of breaking ties, let’s end with a question I’m guessing some of you were wondering about …
Has anyone ever scored an empty net goal in overtime?
No, of course not. That wouldn’t make any sense.
Just kidding, it’s the NHL, of course something this crazy has happened. Multiple times, in fact. And it didn’t even need a wacky own goal.
Let’s start with the logic here, such as it is. The only time it would ever make sense to pull a goalie in overtime would be if a team was in a situation where it needed two points from a win; one point isn’t enough. For that reason, we’d only ever expect to have a team use the strategy very late in a season, and that’s indeed what we see.
The first empty net overtime goal came on April 1, 1989, when a desperate maple leaves team pulled Allan Bester at the end of overtime in St. Louis, only to see Gino Cavallini pot the winner. It was the first OT ENG in over 70 years of NHL history, and we wouldn’t see it again until (checks notes) the very next day, when Mario Lemieux had one against the flyers.
Mike Ridley had one in 1993 against the Canadiens, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. After that, we had to wait until 2000 (Edmonton’s Rem Murray vs. Vancouver) and 2003 (Andrew Cassels of the Blue Jackets). Those latter two are notable for being the only two cases of a team losing in overtime in the loser/bonus point era and getting zero points due to an obscure rule.
Bonus weird fact: That 1989 game between the Leafs and Blues and the 1993 game between the Capitals and Canadiens both involved Paul Cavallini on the winning team and Vincent Damphousse on the losing team. Also, the two loser point era games saw Cassels score the late goal to send the 2000 game to overtime and then the overtime goal to end it in 2003. This all means something. I’m still working on what.
Will we ever see another OT ENG? We could, although it’s extremely unlikely. It’s possible we could see an own goal on a delayed penalty, although that would require a referee actually notifying a penalty in overtime, so good luck with that. And while the shootout means there are no more ties to worry about, we could see a team going into a regular-season finale needing a regulation/overtime win for tiebreaking purposes.
Neither scenario is very likely, but as you now know, empty net goals can be very weird.
(Photo of alex ovechkin scoring an empty net goal: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)