(Cue to Paul Kinsey's aborted Jackie or Marilyn? campaign, featuring sexful shots of Lloyd Carr and Les Miles.)
Hockey is a little different from other sports, in that the games free flowing nature means there aren't as many opportunities to second-guess a coach as you'd have in a football or baseball game. There is who will start in goal, some line-matching if the team is at home, maybe when to use a timeout if it's late in the game, and some overall strategy and tactics, which largely go unnoticed by the general public. Compare that to football where coaches are the ones making every decision on what play to run, deciding whether to go for it on fourth down or kick it, managing the clock and timeouts, etc., or baseball where the manager not only controls the lineup, but can control everything down to what pitch a pitcher throws, when to steal a base, when to bunt, where his fielder's stand, etc.. Even basketball coaches have a little more control by controlling substitutions and managing their 40 timeouts per game.
So it's interesting to me that last week, two coaches faced a very similar in-game decision and each went in a different direction.
Let’s set the stage during the third period of Saturday’s game between Boston College and Notre Dame in South Bend. The Irish led 2-1, and were short-handed with about 13 minutes to play. BC’s only goal of the game came on the power play in the first period. Notre Dame’s Riley Sheahan stole the puck during the penalty kill and was hooked down by BC’s Tommy Cross, with 1:45 remaining in the original BC power play. The referees awarded a penalty shot to Sheahan, but Notre Dame’s coaching staff took advantage of a rules stipulation and turned down the potential penalty-shot opportunity in favor of having Cross serve the two-minute minor. That allowed the Irish to play even-strength, 4-on-4 hockey for the next 1:45 against the talented Eagles, and wiped out their power-play chance. Notre Dame held on for the 2-1 victory.
This week’s stick salute goes to the Notre Dame coaching staff, not just for being aware of that rule book opportunity and interpretation, but having the guts and savvy to make that call in that situation. Coaches can make game plans, in-game adjustments, and prepare teams every week to compete, but in-game results are primarily dictated by players. Notre Dame’s coaches gave their players the best opportunity to win in the last 13 minutes of Saturday’s game, and they defeated the nation’s top-ranked team.
A very similar situation happened on Friday night in the game between Minnesota State and Colorado College. With Minnesota State leading 4-3 early in the third period, Minnesota State was shorthanded when Maverick Joe Schiller was tripped by CC's Mike Boivin on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot. The Mavericks opted to take the penalty shot, and Schiller was stopped by Joe Howe. Colorado College tied the game about five minutes later, but MSU managed to get the lead back and win 5-4.
So which is the better decision? INCH certainly seemed to be in favor of taking the penalty, though I'm not sure I necessarily agree. This is like the equivalent of a football team, up by seven points late in the fourth quarter, deciding to go for it on fourth and short or punt the ball from their opponent's 40 yard line.Taking the penalty makes it slightly easier to defend the rest of the game, but a penalty shot gives the opportunity to take a commanding two-goal late in the third period, which most teams aren't likely to give up.
The two decisions, it should be noted, were also slightly different in that Notre Dame was choosing to basically negate a Boston College power play, while Minnesota State only had 11 seconds left to kill, so they were essentially choosing the penalty shot over their own power play.
Ultimately, I think it's almost always a better idea to take the penalty shot. I can't find any data for college hockey, especially now that the CCHA uses the shootout, but the general rule for pro hockey is that penalty shots have about a 30% success rate. It's pretty rare for a special teams situation to have a better than 30% success rate. Boston College's own power play is only succeeding at a 15% clip to start the season, while Notre Dame has a 93.1% PK percentage. Even if the chances of Sheahan scoring are way less than average at like 15-20%, it's still a more likely outcome than Sheahan missing and Boston College scoring with the rest of their power play.
The same holds true for Minnesota State's power play, which was 2-for-4 at that point in the game, but a terrible 9.5% heading into the game. Even CC's PK percentage, which was below 80% at the time, wouldn't have been enough to sway me. Taking the penalty there would have had the added benefit of essentially shortening the game by two minutes, assuming MSU didn't give up a shorthanded goal, but I'm not sure if there's ever a time taking two minutes off the clock is worth it. If it's too close to the end of the game, a two-goal lead is close to insurmountable. If it's too far from the end of the game, the two minutes doesn't mean as much. I'm not quite sure where the tipping point is there. Plus, add in that Minnesota State would have scored twice in about a minute and a half stretch at home, and the resulting momentum, and that's too much of a kill strike to pass up.
So there you go. Maybe I'm wearing my Les Miles hat today, but I think it's almost always better to take the penalty shot. Of course, the irony is that if anyone would have been better off taking the two-minute penalty, it probably would have been Minnesota State, and not Notre Dame.