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An extra attacker in ice hockey is a forward or, less commonly, a defenceman who has been substituted in place of the goaltender. The purpose of this substitution is to gain an offensive advantage to score a goal. The removal of the goaltender for an extra attacker is colloquially called pulling the goalie, resulting in an empty net.
The extra attacker is typically utilized in two situations:
- Near the end of the game — typically the last 60 to 90 seconds — when a team is losing by one or two goals. In this case, the team risks a goal being scored on its empty net. In "do-or-die" situations, such as playoff elimination games, teams may pull the goalie for an extra attacker earlier in the game and/or when they are down by more goals.
- During a delayed penalty call. In this case, once the opposing team regains possession of the puck, play will be stopped for the penalty. This means there will be no chance for a shot to be taken by the penalized team, rendering the goaltender of little use. On rare occasions (and much to the humiliation of the team which has pulled its goalie), however, the puck can find its way into the empty net (without the penalized team ever gaining possession) as a result of an errant pass or other mishandling of the puck by the team with the man advantage. As is the case in hockey rules, the goal is awarded to the player on the penalized team who had last touched the puck, and the serving of the penalty begins after the faceoff at centre ice.
The term sixth attacker is also used when both teams are at even strength; teams may also pull the goalie when shorthanded by a player, in which case the extra attacker would be a fifth attacker. It is exceptionally rare for a penalized team to do so during five on three situations.
Also, in overtime, an extra attacker is added automatically when a team down one player because of penalty is penalised again for a second minor penalty; the team on the power play will play five on three for the rest of the two-man advantage, and until the next whistle. In leagues with a three on three overtime, each minor penalty results in an extra attacker for the team on the power play.
In leagues like the National Hockey League where regular season standings are based on a point system (i.e. two points are awarded for a win, one point for losing in overtime or a shootout, and zero points for a loss in regulation), a team may be forced to use an extra attacker even when the scored is tied near the end of regulation of its last regular season game to avoid being eliminated from playoff contention.
The extra attacker concept was created by Art Ross, coach and general manager of the Boston Bruins. In a playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens on March 26, 1931, Ross had goaltender Tiny Thompson go to the bench for a sixth skater in the final minute of play; even so, the Bruins lost the game 1–0.