Sports

Calm on a crazy night, Mrazek makes his case in Hurricanes’ net

Darling back for the Hurricanes

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling discusses his one rehab start with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL and his eagerness to play for the Canes after the morning skate Oct. 26, 2018 at PNC Arena.
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Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling discusses his one rehab start with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL and his eagerness to play for the Canes after the morning skate Oct. 26, 2018 at PNC Arena.

Petr Mrazek’s one-legged fist pump after steering the final shot of the shootout wide was a novel contribution on a night the Carolina Hurricanes pushed the envelope on celebrations, and his third-period saves helped get the Hurricanes to overtime, and all of that was still the least of what he did Friday night.

Scott Darling will almost certainly start Sunday, because he appears to be ready after one rehab start and because he has to play and because it makes more sense for him to make his season debut against the New York Islanders than against one of the NHL’s best teams on Tuesday, but he’s going to have to play pretty well to unseat Mrazek in the net.

Mrazek’s play in Friday’s 4-3 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks, another of the NHL’s best teams, makes him the obvious choice against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday and, for that matter, the foreseeable future. He has given the Hurricanes a chance to win every time he has started. He has made his case to be this team’s No. 1 goalie.

Darling will get his chance to make his case as well, and if he can duplicate his form after showing up in camp in playing shape, before pulling his hamstring in his final preseason appearance, he’ll have a strong argument. The Hurricanes need to get a sense of what the remodeled Darling can do against real opposition, and the sooner the better so they can resolve things with Curtis McElhinney, currently the third man out but still essential since hamstrings are notoriously tricky for goalies.

For now, though, Mrazek has done everything asked of him. Friday, he put the punctuation on it.

“Every game you play, you’re getting used to the defense and playing with them,” Mrazek said. “When we play the way we know we can play, we’re going to be successful.”

He was barely bothered against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, a spare part until he saw his first shot late in the first period, but still stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced. Friday was different: Mrazek was under fire early as the Sharks ripped apart the sluggish, listless Hurricanes – left mostly defenseless on the Sharks’ two first-period goals while stopping a shorthanded breakaway.

“We could have been up 4-0,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer lamented, and Mrazek had a lot to do with that on a night his teammates didn’t show up until the first intermission – although there were fireworks once they did.

The Hurricanes’ rally and recovery to tie the score 3-3 was as entertaining as hockey has been in this building in a long time, two high-intensity teams going back and forth, and it took some of Mrazek’s best work – including a point-blank save on a Joe Pavelski tip in the slot late in regulation.

In the shootout, where Hurricanes goalies have so often posed less resistance than a speedbump, Mrazek stopped Logan Couture before the post denied Pavelski, then forced Joonas Donskoi wide for the win.

His celebration was lost in the two that followed; the Hurricanes tweaked their usual sprint to the end boards to reverse course, slide to the ice and paddle toward the net before Dougie Hamilton, introduced as the No. 2 star, did a flawless floss.

Amid this innovation, Mrazek continued his steady play in net. He doesn’t always look steady – he’s a scrambler, for sure – but he’s making timely saves when the Hurricanes need them. His unimpressive .881 save percentage is to an extent a function of how few shots he sees; his 2.67 goals-against average is more than adequate on a team scoring 3.2 goals a game – and those numbers are both inflated by the five goals he allowed in the early season win over the New York Rangers. He hasn’t allowed more than three since.

This was the chance Mrazek wanted when he signed here, a one-year deal to prove himself after washing out with the Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers. He’s getting it now. He has earned the right to keep proving himself, if not Sunday, then beyond.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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