Mrazek’s daring poke check has McElhinney talking

Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho quickly tore out of the clutches of some joyous teammates Saturday after his overtime goal against the Florida Panthers.

Aho quickly skated toward goalie Petr Mrazek, who already was drawing a crowd of guys in white sweaters.

It was Mrazek who had come well out of the crease for a jaw-dropping poke check on the Panthers’ Mike Matheson in the overtime. It was Mrazek who moments later then bailed Aho out after an Aho turnover, denying Jonathan Huberdeau’s breakaway shot at ending the game.

Aho did end it, taking a perfect pass from Nino Niederreiter on a two-on-one and scoring. For Aho it was a game-winning goal in a third straight game and another two points for the Canes, but only after Mrazek made game-deciding plays.

“With Petr, there are some things I would never do,” Canes goalie Curtis McElhinney said Monday, smiling.

Such as? “A diving poke check,” he said.

“I’m not a huge poke-checking guy, certainly not to extent he did it. But that’s a split-second read that he’s developed over years of playing the position. I appreciate his ability to make that decision that fast and to, what do you want to say, have the nerve to skate out there. Because if it goes the other way it doesn’t look too pretty.”

Mrazek, asked Monday about a daring poke check between the circles, joked that he probably hasn’t made an old-school play like that, so far out of his crease, since his junior days in the Czech Republic.

Mrazek said it was the kind of play one of his goaltending idols, Dominik Hasek, would make, saying, “As kids, growing up, we always tried those.”

This was in the NHL, with a point on the line in an intense Eastern Conference fight to maintain playoff position.

“I just saw the guy coming and he was looking down on the puck, got it on his skate a bit,” Mrazek said. “I didn’t think about it, I just thought, ‘OK, I’m going for it.’ I think that was the right play.”

In December, when many things weren’t going right for the Canes, Matheson might have controlled the puck, dodged Mrazek and scored. But the Canes are finding ways to win and the goaltending of Mrazek and McElhinney, and the good decisions and quality starts they’ve made, are a foundation of the success.

After Aho’s goal for the 4-3 win, Mrazek bounced out of the net again, this time pumping his arms.

“I love his enthusiasm on the ice,” McElhinney said. “I love how pumped up he gets. It’s fun to watch. I’m kind of the total opposite that regard.”

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) takes a break against the Edmonton Oilers during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker) Karl B DeBlaker AP

It has become quite a tag-team effort. When goalie Scott Darling injured a hamstring in the Canes’ final preseason game, there again was a goaltending quandary. How long would Darling be out? Could Mrazek, signed to a one-year contract as a free agent, handle a lot of early work?

Goaltending inconsistencies eventually wrecked the Canes last season, ending their playoff hopes. Now this.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs bailed out the Canes, in a way. They put McElhinney on waivers and the Canes claimed the veteran.

“Everybody is always looking for an opportunity and wants that opportunity,” Canes captain Justin Williams said Monday. “Our goalies have seized it this year and have been our MVPs.”

With 17 games left in the regular season, McElhinney (17-7-1) has won six of his last seven starts and Mrazek (16-12-3) four in a row and five of his last six. They’re the first goaltending twosome in franchise history to each win 16 or more games in the same season.

“It’s a great battle, the friendly competition between us,” Mrazek said.

McElhinney has an economy of movement and a calm demeanor, and Mrazek is quicker and more feisty, but they’ve made it work. Both say they feel fresh and have been energized by the Canes’ surge the past two months.

“We both have our internal motivations,” McElhinney said. “We’re both trying to achieve something here, whether that’s a contract or trying to re-establish ourselves. It’s nice to have a fun working relationship and I think that’s what we have between the two of us. Obviously we play drastically different styles.”

Such as when to leave the net for a sprawling poke-check?

“I get a kick out of watching Petr,” McElhinney said, smiling again.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.