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)
Opponent Final GWG Situation Meaningful?
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):

Matt  Niskanen Penguins
Niskanen’s five game-winning goals don’t tell the whole story. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)
Player Meaningful GWG Total GWG
Niskanen 2 5
Crosby 3 (4) 4 (5)
Kunitz 0 4
Jokinen 1 3
Malkin 1 (3) 2 (4)
Neal 1 2
Kobasew 0 2
Megna 0 2
Letang 0 1
Engelland 0 1
Sutter 0 (1) 1 (2)
Martin 0 1
Vitale 0 1


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.

4 thoughts on “Game-Winning Goals: Do They Matter as a Statistic?”

  1. 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.

    • 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…

  2. 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.

    • 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.

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