Luke DeCock

December 17, 2013

DeCock: Peters plays his way into goalie conversation, here or elsewhere

After a rocky start, Justin Peters has emerged as one of the hottest goalies in the NHL over the past three weeks – but with Cam Ward healthy and Anton Khudobin expected soon, three’s a crowd in the Carolina Hurricanes’ net.

Justin Peters was the third and final goalie off the ice at Raleigh Center Ice on Tuesday, and he returned to the dressing room to find his stall a bit cramped. With Cam Ward on one side and Anton Khudobin on the other, Peters had to shoehorn himself into the middle.

Never mind that Peters has started five of the Carolina Hurricanes’ past seven games, giving up a total of seven goals. With Ward back in action and presumably Khudobin soon as well, the Hurricanes’ goalie situation has gotten a little crowded. Peters is to blame for the congestion, in the best possible way.

He got off to a rough start, losing his first five games in net after Khudobin and Ward were injured. (Out of sheer desperation, the Hurricanes offered Rick DiPietro a short-lived AHL tryout.) His turnaround since then is nothing short of remarkable.

Since giving up five goals to the New York Rangers on Nov. 2, his fifth consecutive loss, Peters has allowed more than two in only two of his next 12 starts, going 7-3-2. Only two NHL goalies have better December numbers than Peters’ 1.38 goals-against average and .951 save percentage, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He even ended up starting the final two games of the Hurricanes’ recently concluded road trip ahead of a healthy Ward.

“He’s done a good job just staying with it mentally after the start he had,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “He was able to regroup and play the way he has lately.”

There are so many signs of progress in his game, from his economy of movement to a relaxed confidence that allows him to absorb more shots and give up fewer rebounds. And undoubtedly, his success is partly the cause and partly the product of an improved team game that has seen the Hurricanes give up fewer chances.

“It’s nice to have some markers to let you know that doing the right thing works,” Peters said. “My first five, six games we lost. As a team, that was our focus – it wasn’t just me focusing on it – sticking to the process.”

Peters has played so well, the Hurricanes now face some difficult decisions. Having too many goalies is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem that needs to be solved. Ward isn’t going anywhere, while Khudobin and Peters both have contracts that expire after the season. As important as Peters has been to the Hurricanes recently, he has more value as a trade asset than Khudobin, who has taken nine weeks – and counting – to recover from an ankle injury.

The Hurricanes have told Peters they won’t put him on waivers, so he’s not going back to the AHL any time soon. As his name starts to pop up in trade rumors, Peters has gone from being third on the Hurricanes’ depth chart to start the season by a wide margin – not even getting a single minute of preseason action – to potentially having an opportunity to audition as someone’s future No. 1.

“Coming up, I just assumed I’d be going back to Charlotte at some point,” Peters said. “But I understand how things change overnight. It’s nice right now for the team to be doing well and we have a good feeling in here. At the same time, I understand this business is kind of ‘What are you doing for me today?’ Every day, you have to prove yourself.”

As long as Peters keeps proving he can win games in the NHL, he’ll get a chance to do it – if not here, then somewhere else. If that’s the opportunity he gets, it’s one he has definitely earned.

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