Down by A Goal


Just 5 minutes and 40 seconds. If you’re an NHL coach and you’re down a goal in the third period, this is the exact moment you should pull your goalie if you want to increase your chances of making a comeback. If your team is down two goals, then you need to pull your goalie at 11 minutes and 30 seconds. So says the statistical model created by PhD mathematicians Cliff Asness and Aaron Brown in a paper published in Social Science & Research Network.

No coach in hockey history has ever played by these numbers and pulled a goalie with that much time left in the third period. According to the NHL, Mike Babcock holds the record for the earliest goalie removal—with 3 minutes left on the clock. Let’s face it: No coach in a professional league who wants to keep their job would ever include such a risky move in their playbook.

And yet, statistically, this is the best strategy for a win. Pulling your goalie earlier in the third period means you quickly gain an extra forward, which increases your changes of scoring. The numbers don’t lie. So why wouldn’t you use this play?

Because people don’t consider this an acceptable risk. And if your risk doesn’t pan out, you’ll be the laughingstock of the league.

This mathematical calculation has opportunities beyond hockey. It also shows what happens when science comes into conflict with tradition—and when emotions get in the way of rational thought.

We’ve all faced this dilemma in our careers, when the data shows our project is going nowhere and we have to go back and look at our strategy. Even if we still have minutes left on the clock to address the issues, we’ve already invested so much time, money, and energy into the project. To make matters worse, we’ve convinced the Board of Directors that our idea is a solid one.

In an attempt to ensure our peers continue to respect us, we instead look for data to put our project in a good light. But by doing this, we reduce the chances of stepping back and creating a winning strategy—which may well have resulted in a win for the company. And for us.   

The next time you find yourself in this situation—down by a goal, running out of time—think of this analogy. Then be the strategist who looks data in the eye and decides to increase the odds of a win—even if that means swimming against the current and going against your gut.


If you find yourself in this position and feel a little overwhelmed, a simple Design Thinking workshop and an analysis of your data by one of our experts can help you make the best decision for your company.


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This blog was inspired by the Revolutionist History podcast from Canadian author Malcolm Gladwel.

Arnaud Montpetit
Vice-President, Strategy