Do Goalie Changes Provide A Psychological Benefit For Hockey Teams?

One of the most prominent storylines right now in the Western Conference Finals between the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks is the ongoing goalie situation with the Blues.

Brian Elliott, the team’s starter and most valuable player throughout the first two rounds, was pulled in favor of Jake Allen in the third period of Game 3 after his team fell behind 3-0. The Blues, after getting outscored by a combined 7-0 in Games 2 and 3, decided to stick with Allen for Game 4, a move that garnered a decent amount of controversy.

To an extent, the skepticism of the decision makes sense. There were 18 reasons why the Blues lost Games 2 and 3, but they were the team’s skaters that failed to fire a single puck into the Sharks net, not Elliott. St. Louis looked flat in both contests as San Jose handily controlled the puck in all three zones.

Still, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock knew that he needed to do something to wake his team up, and that a goalie swap might just fit the bill

“(I) just feel like we need to get us a little bit of momentum change because we are not being rewarded for the work and they are; the small difference in the series being that,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve got a goalie that gives a different look. He plays a different style. He’s very active in the net. He’s very active at moving the puck; getting us out of transition. He’s an awful good goalie, just like Ells is. Ells has run quite a distance here. We just feel like Jake’s a guy that can help us change the momentum of the series.”

Did it work? Well, the Blues as a team certainly responded, giving their best outing of the series and winning Game 4 by a final score of 6-3 after jumping out to a huge 4-0 lead in the second period.

But was the goalie swap one of the main reasons why? There were, completely understandably, many people still unconvinced.

While the idea of a goalie change sparking a team’s offense might not seem to make a whole lot of tangible sense (after all, the goalie isn’t the one scoring goals), there’s still the very real possibility that it could make a psychological impact, which would then directly influence the rest of the play on the ice.

Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski summarized this quite succinctly in an article yesterday:

Here’s the deal with Allen and the Blues: It’s the right call

It absolutely sucks for Elliott, who’s been hung out to dry against the Sharks like a damp pool towel on a Marriott balcony. But these are desperate times for Ken Hitchcock, and this move is purely one to change the vibe, change the conversation and stop the bleeding.

In other words, these are desperate times. The gap between Elliott and Allen was never significantly large. Elliott’s play, and his ability to rebound from bad play, is the reason the Blues are even still in this thing.

But there are very few ways to put the defibrillator on the heart of this team right now. It’s almost like when a coach gets fired: Some of the players inevitably feel as though they’re the ones who cost him the job. Maybe that same dismay motivates the Blues at this dire hour.

He’s right. If you stop to look at the situation from a psychological angle there’s probably more going on than what initially meets the eye.

It really shouldn’t be such a controversial subject. After all, there exists an entire specified field of psychology dedicated to sports. Hockey, naturally, is no exception. To some extent or another, pretty much everyone agrees that psychology plays at least some part in the sport. Score effects (teams falling into shells when leading and pushing more aggressively when trailing) is an interesting example, a phenomenon that is essentially cold, hard fact at this point but whose roots are buried deep inside sports psychology.

The Dallas Stars seem to understand the power of the goalie pull. Not only did the team evenly roll two goaltenders all season to the tune of 109 points and a Western Conference title, but head coach Lindy Ruff showed no hesitation towards changing goalies in-game or from night-to-night, regularly using it as a means to keep the rest of his team on its edge and playing to the best of their ability.


Now, by no means is swapping netminders some miraculous secret formula to help a team. The Pittsburgh Penguins are turning to Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, possibly to achieve the same result as the Blues, but it’s a move that could backfire horribly considering Fleury hasn’t started a game since March 31st as he’s been recovering from a concussion. Improved play from his teammates might not be enough for the Pens if Fleury does not provide a strong performance himself.

The argument could also be made that the Stars, who were eliminated from the playoffs primarily because of bad goaltending, played that card too much and it wound up having a negative impact on both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.

The truth, like many things in life, lies somewhere in the middle. Changing goalies can be an effective way to spark a team to improved performance, if it’s done smartly. Properly understanding the right (and the wrong) times to do it could yield huge results for teams with the desire and the means to explore that possibility.