I tend toward the opinion that empty-net goals should be called something else, and be counted separately from the traditional goals stat. “Alex Ovechkin leads the league in game-sealers.” “Connor McDavid plunges the dagger into the Kraken with his sixth nogoalie of the season.” Doesn’t that make more sense? The empty-net goal is by far the easiest kind of goal a hockey player can score, and portraying it as equal to the ones achieved with the guy in the big pads standing in the crease can give a warped view of a player’s season. Since the start of the 2019–20 season, for example, Sebastian Aho has scored 12 additional goals from empty-net situations, while, say, Mika Zibanejad only has two in just about the same hour of 6-on-5 action. Just a glance at their stats, however, would tell you that Aho has 90 goals in the last three years, while Zibanejad had a nearly equal 91. I’m not so sure that’s fair!
But I’m not here to talk about those guys. This is the Auston Matthews Time. The Maple Leafs star did something noble and cool last season, which is win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top scorer without putting a single puck into an empty net. (Rick Nash, in 03–04, is the only other guy to do it since the trophy started getting handed out in 1999.) In general, Matthews just isn’t much of an empty-net guy, scoring a mere three of those goals in his first five NHL seasons. And while this year he’s managed to equal that career number, it still only puts him in a gigantic tie for 13th among all NHLers, with four guys holding twice that or more.
I’ve struggled to figure out why exactly this is the case. Matthews’s relatively small number of empty-net goals isn’t for a lack of opportunity—he’s fourth among Leafs forwards in ice time with the opposing goalie pulled, and was second last year. It’s not that he’s got bad luck—per Natural Stat Trick, his individual Corsi numbers show he’s only shot and missed on an empty net twice this year and three times last year. And it’s not plain unselfishness either, as Matthews only has one lonely assist without the goalie this year, and two last year. It all adds up, I suppose, to just further illustrate how random and weird this stat can be.
But Matthews got one on Sunday in Toronto’s 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers, and this goal was actually pretty nice. This was no weak tap-in, but a long shot that Matthews sent flying over the defense from his own zone, which landed with perfect accuracy in the crease before one-hopping into the net. To make it even more impressive, there was under a second remaining in the game when it crossed the red line.
This empty-netter, plus the one Matthews sent through the Devils defense back in January, both make a good case for not completely disregarding the genre as artless luck. But aside from its aesthetics, this one versus the Panthers meant so much more than just the difference between winning by two goals or three, because of what Leon Draisaitl did for the Oilers late Saturday night in a high-scoring loss against the Flames. Leon got three goals—the hard way—and as the title of this video so helpfully explains, his hat trick tied Matthews for the league lead in goals at 47. Matthews’ empty-net buzzer beater the following day, then, pulled him back into the lead with 48.
Draisaitl, too, has a trio of nogoalies on the season, so he doesn’t have much ground to claim robbery here. But the weekend’s action was still an especially stark reminder that these plays are so much more than punctuation. The empty-netter played a huge role in the goal chase two seasons ago, when David Pastrnak and Ovechkin both tied with 48 because Ovi had six empty-netters compared to Pasta’s one. It did so also the previous year, when Draisaitl had 50 goals and zero empty netters compared to Ovi’s 51 and four.
With how tight the race is between Draisaitl and Matthews at the moment, one of these weird little flukes could again prove to be the separation. That may seem like no big thing only if you lose sight of the fact that the guy who scored the most goals in the whole entire NHL is a frickin’ awesome title to claim. And when you call yourself that, rarely does anybody stop to consider how many times a goalie was actually there to make it harder for you.