Game-winning goals (hereinafter “GWGs”) have been a noteworthy topic around the NHL this season. There was the moment back in October when Jaromir Jagr moved into first place of the all-time GWGs list. There was the moment a few hours later when everyone decided Jagr was not in first place, still behind Gordie Howe. Then, there was the moment in December, when Jagr moved into first place…again.
It hasn’t all been about Jaromir Jagr though. Recently, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen set a new franchise record for GWGs by a defenseman with five already this season. He passed the likes of former Penguins defenseman Brad Werenka (seriously) and others to earn his place in franchise history.
Penguins’ Matt Niskanen had 2 game-winning goals in 410 career NHL games entering this season. (He has 5 GWGs in 47 games this year.)
— Yahoo Sports NHL (@YahooSportsNHL) January 14, 2014
With six goals this season, notching five GWGs lends itself to the idea that Niskanen is “Mr. Clutch” as Sean Griffin pointed out earlier this week. While Sean and I certainly agree that Niskanen has been clutch for the Penguins this year, I have decided to respectfully disagree with using GWGs as a marker for that.
Flaws with Game-Winning Goals
Game-winning goals, it turns out, is just a lazy statistic that probably makes itself most useful for inflated contract negotiations.
Not all GWGs are created equal. A game-winner can occur in the first minute of an eventual shutout or the last five seconds in a one-goal win. One of these is clutch, while the other is far from it.
Overtime winners? Those are the best game-winners. Those live up to the reputation.
Moving beyond overtime in the regular season though, some GWGs don’t even count as GWGs or goals at all. No one earns regular statistics in a shootout, which means no one earns a game-winning goal either. It doesn’t make much sense that Brandon Sutter could be the only player to score in a five-round shootout and earn his team an extra point and a win, but not earn himself a game-winning goal.
So what does the statistic actually tell anyone? It simply tells the hockey world which player ended up with the last goal required for a win. Nothing more and nothing less. That is, unless the game enters a shootout, in which case apparently no player leads his team to victory.
Meaningful Game-Winning Goals
Is it too much to ask for a statistic that keeps track of meaningful game-winning goals?
The first problem would be defining what is meaningful. Some situations are easy. Overtime goals are certainly meaningful. The shootout winner should be a meaningful goal, even if it’s not categorized as a goal by the NHL.
Did Crosby not win this game for the Penguins?
Moving away from easy deciding goals, at what point in regulation does a potential game-winner go from a run-of-the-mill goal to meaningful one?
Everything in the first two periods should be considered a regular goal, unworthy of meaningful GWG categorization. With at least a full period to go, there is very limited pressure to consider the idea of scoring the game-winner that early in a game.
Meanwhile, anything that breaks a tie in the third period of a game should count. Even if the final score ends up as 5-1, breaking a 1-1 tie in the third period forces both teams to start looking at the clock as the countdown to the end of the game begins.
As for insurance goals in the third period, I decided against counting them. As they provide breathing room for the winning team, they often lead to relaxed defense and goals against as well. Also, insurance goals aren’t scored with nearly the same pressure behind them.
Pittsburgh Penguins Game-Winning Goals
So how clutch is Matt Niskanen in terms of GWGs? Here’s a chart of every game-winner the Penguins have scored this season. Shootout goals are in italics with an asterisk since the NHL does not include them.
|NJ||3-0||Kobasew||Mid-1st period, 0-0 game||No|
|Buf||4-1||Kobasew||Mid-1st period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
|Car||5-2||Jokinen||Early 3rd period, tied 2-2||Yes|
|TB||5-4||Niskanen||Late 3rd period, tied 4-4||Yes|
|Edm||3-2||Malkin||Mid-3rd period, tied 2-2||Yes|
|Phi||4-1||Kunitz||Mid-2nd period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
|Van||4-3 (SO)||Malkin||Only shootout goal scored||Yes*|
|Car||3-1||Kunitz||Late 2nd period, tied 1-1||No|
|Bos||3-2||Jokinen||Late 3rd period, Pens already up 2-1||No|
|Cls||4-2||Letang||Early 2nd period, Pens already up 2-0||No|
|Cls||3-0||Engelland||Mid-2nd period, 0-0 game||No|
|Nsh||4-1||Neal||Late 1st period, tied 1-1||No|
|Ana||3-1||Sutter||Early 3rd period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
|Was||4-0||Martin||Early 1st period, 0-0 game||No|
|NYI||4-3||Crosby||Late 3rd period, tied 3-3||Yes|
|Tor||5-4 (SO)||Malkin||Second shootout goal, eliminated last Tor shot||Yes*|
|TB||3-0||Kunitz||Early 1st period, 0-0 game||No|
|Fla||5-1||Vitale||Mid-1st period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
|NYI||3-2 (OT)||Crosby||Overtime, tied 2-2||Yes|
|SJ||5-1||Megna||Early 2nd period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
|Cls||2-1||Crosby||Mid-3rd period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
|NJ||3-2||Megna||Late 1st period, Pens already up 2-0||No|
|Det||4-1||Malkin||Mid-1st period, tied 1-1||No|
|Tor||3-1||Crosby||Mid-3rd period, tied 1-1||Yes|
|NYR||4-3 (SO)||Sutter||Only shootout goal scored||Yes*|
|Min||5-2||Niskanen||Early 2nd period, Pens already up 2-0||No|
|Cal||4-3||Niskanen||Late 2nd period, Pens already up 3-1||No|
|Car||4-3 (OT)||Neal||Overtime, tied 3-3||Yes|
|Cls||5-3||Kunitz||Mid-3rd period, Pens already up 3-2||No|
|NYR||5-2||Jokinen||Early 2nd period, Pens already up 2-0||No|
|Wpg||6-5||Niskanen||Mid-3rd period, tied 5-5||Yes|
|Van||5-4 (SO)||Crosby||Only shootout goal scored||Yes*|
|Cal||2-1||Niskanen||Early 2nd period, Pens already up 1-0||No|
Broken down into a chart of game-winners vs meaningful game-winners by the definitions above (shootout winners counted in parentheses):
|Player||Meaningful GWG||Total GWG|
|Crosby||3 (4)||4 (5)|
|Malkin||1 (3)||2 (4)|
|Sutter||0 (1)||1 (2)|
Has Matt Niskanen been clutch for Pittsburgh? He absolutely has been, just not solely on account of his five game-winners. Meanwhile, is there any surprise that Sidney Crosby comes up big when it matters the most for Pittsburgh? On the opposite end of the spectrum, Chris Kunitz may score a lot, but his center takes care of the “clutch” situations.
When it comes to game-winning goals, the numbers aren’t always what they appear to be.