Game-Winning Goals: Do They Matter as a Statistic?

You know what really grinds my gears? (Thanks Family Guy and fellow THW writer, Sean Griffin)

Game-winning goals.

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.

 

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.

Kobasew scored two game-winners in his first two games as a Penguin. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Kobasew scored two game-winners in his first two games as a Penguin. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

OpponentFinalGWGSituationMeaningful?
NJ3-0KobasewMid-1st period, 0-0 gameNo
Buf4-1KobasewMid-1st period, Pens already up 1-0No
Car5-2JokinenEarly 3rd period, tied 2-2Yes
TB5-4NiskanenLate 3rd period, tied 4-4Yes
Edm3-2MalkinMid-3rd period, tied 2-2Yes
Phi4-1KunitzMid-2nd period, Pens already up 1-0No
Van4-3 (SO)MalkinOnly shootout goal scoredYes*
Car3-1KunitzLate 2nd period, tied 1-1No
Bos3-2JokinenLate 3rd period, Pens already up 2-1No
Cls4-2LetangEarly 2nd period, Pens already up 2-0No
Cls3-0EngellandMid-2nd period, 0-0 gameNo
Nsh4-1NealLate 1st period, tied 1-1No
Ana3-1SutterEarly 3rd period, Pens already up 1-0No
Was4-0MartinEarly 1st period, 0-0 gameNo
NYI4-3CrosbyLate 3rd period, tied 3-3Yes
Tor5-4 (SO)MalkinSecond shootout goal, eliminated last Tor shotYes*
TB3-0KunitzEarly 1st period, 0-0 gameNo
Fla5-1VitaleMid-1st period, Pens already up 1-0No
NYI3-2 (OT)CrosbyOvertime, tied 2-2Yes
SJ5-1MegnaEarly 2nd period, Pens already up 1-0No
Cls2-1CrosbyMid-3rd period, Pens already up 1-0No
NJ3-2MegnaLate 1st period, Pens already up 2-0No
Det4-1MalkinMid-1st period, tied 1-1No
Tor3-1CrosbyMid-3rd period, tied 1-1Yes
NYR4-3 (SO)SutterOnly shootout goal scoredYes*
Min5-2NiskanenEarly 2nd period, Pens already up 2-0No
Cal4-3NiskanenLate 2nd period, Pens already up 3-1No
Car4-3 (OT)NealOvertime, tied 3-3Yes
Cls5-3KunitzMid-3rd period, Pens already up 3-2No
NYR5-2JokinenEarly 2nd period, Pens already up 2-0No
Wpg6-5NiskanenMid-3rd period, tied 5-5Yes
Van5-4 (SO)CrosbyOnly shootout goal scoredYes*
Cal2-1NiskanenEarly 2nd period, Pens already up 1-0No

 

Broken down into a chart of game-winners vs meaningful game-winners by the definitions above (shootout winners counted in parentheses):

Matt  Niskanen Penguins

Niskanen’s five game-winning goals don’t tell the whole story. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

PlayerMeaningful GWGTotal GWG
Niskanen25
Crosby3 (4)4 (5)
Kunitz04
Jokinen13
Malkin1 (3)2 (4)
Neal12
Kobasew02
Megna02
Letang01
Engelland01
Sutter0 (1)1 (2)
Martin01
Vitale01

 

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.





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  • http://bonander.tumblr.com/ Ross Bonander

    Great subject. My only disagreement might be the decision to exclude third period insurance goals. So long as they’re scored in the third period and so long as they result in being the GWG, they ought to count. Otherwise as much as I like the GWG stat, you’re absolutely right, the stat is skewed.

    • http://thepensnation.com/tpn Meesh Shanmugam

      Thanks! I went back and forth on the first insurance goal. The scenarios change so much (sometimes just an empty netter, sometimes within a minute of the GWG) that I decided to move forward without it for standardization purposes. Maybe insurance goals should turn into another marker…

  • Brendan Collins

    I think the problem with this is that it would be really difficult to change the stat itself to include only “meaningful” game-winning-goals. In the end, there is a game winning goal in each game, the question is the importance we attribute to it.

    • http://thepensnation.com/tpn Meesh Shanmugam

      I guess more than changing the stat, I would love to see a secondary stat added. It doesn’t quite fit into the advanced stats community, but it would serve more value. You’re right though, the issue is how much we use it really.