Mrazek or McElhinney? Bales makes the net call for Canes

Goalie play key in Canes big wins

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour has allowed goaltending coach Mike Bales to name the starting goalie, with good results. Check out photos of goalies Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek in action.
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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour has allowed goaltending coach Mike Bales to name the starting goalie, with good results. Check out photos of goalies Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek in action.

Goalie Curtis McElhinney was in net when the Carolina Hurricanes shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0 in an early February road game.

The two teams faced off again Tuesday at PNC Arena and the Canes went with ... Petr Mrazek?

Canes goaltending coach Mike Bales made that call, head coach Rod Brind’Amour gave it the nod and Mrazek it was. Good decision, too. Mrazek battled his way through a 38-save game, made all three stops in a shootout -- one against Sidney Crosby -- and the Canes (40-25-7) emerged with a 3-2 victory that improved their playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

Brind’Amour has said throughout the season that he defers to Bales to make the decisions on the starting goalie and that’s not just lip service to the media. Brind’Amour, in his first year as a head coach, lets his assistant coaches do their jobs and shows trust in them, and has done that with Bales.

“He works with those guys,” Brind’Amour said Wednesday. “It’s his job. He has two guys to worry about. I’ve got enough guys to worry about. Obviously we communicate and it’s kind of uncanny that we’re basically almost on the exact same page. I’ll say ‘Who you want?’ and he’ll say ‘This guy’ and I say ‘OK.’

“He deals with them. He knows how they feel. It’s been his call all the way and I haven’t had to do any ‘Oh, no, we’re not playing that guy.’ Because they’re both good and that’s what’s great, too.”

Mrazek has won seven of his last eight starts and McElhinney is 7-2-1 in his last 10, so Bales has been giving Brind’Amour the right names for the most part. Handling two goalies can be like handling two fairly even quarterbacks. Both have a certain amount of personal and professional pride and want to play, and it’s up to the coach to keep both happy while doing what’s best for the team.

Before coming to Carolina before the 2017-18 season, Bales was goaltending coach for the Penguins, winning two Stanley Cups. The Pens had a veteran, Marc-Andre Fleury, and a young guy, Matt Murray, who was pushing Fleury, and the politics associated with the job eventually resulted in Bales leaving.

Bales weathered through last season with goalies Cam Ward and Scott Darling. Things have been smoother with Mrazek and then McElhinney, 35, who was claimed off waivers from Toronto in early October after Darling was injured.

McElhinney, in his 11th NHL season, made his 28th start of the year Saturday as the Canes topped the Buffalo Sabres 4-2, tying his career high set in 2014-15 with Columbus. He has an 18-8-2 record, a career-high for wins in a season.

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney (35) and Brett Pesce (22) defend the goal against Buffalo Sabres’ Evan Rodrigues (71) during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019. Carolina won 4-2. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Gerry Broome AP

McElhinney said Bales usually lets the goalies know the day before the game who’ll be starting.

“There hasn’t been any surprises, anything left to the last minute,” McElhinney said.

For the Pens game, that was Mrazek. Why not McElhinney again?

“Some guys will look at what (goalies) have done prior in games against certain teams, but it was a road game and it was in Pittsburgh,” Bales said. “This was a home game and I had confidence in both guys. It’s just the way the rhythm of the season goes. I’m trying to keep both guys fresh and both playing well and it was a good opportunity for Petr to play.

“It’s nothing I tried to over-think just because Curtis played so well against them up there. I knew Petr could come in and throw a great game out there for us and he did.”

Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang scored the Pens’ goals, Letang with a top-shelf shot off the rush with 4:37 left in regulation for a 2-1 lead. The Canes were staring at a regulation loss, but with Mrazek pulled for a sixth attacker, Justin Williams tied the score with 1:57 left in the third and Mrazek later stopped Phil Kessel, Crosby and Guentzel in the shootout.

The game won, Mrazek punched the air with his right arm. As the season has progressed, the Czech-born goalie has become more demonstrative in net -- the polar opposite of McElhinney.

“Maybe it took him a little while to feel comfortable, feeling himself, but it’s definitely something the whole team feeds off and our crowd feeds off,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s good to see that emotion.”

Bales said Mrazek, 27, tends to thrive in those situations. In Tuesday’s game, Mrazek (19-13-3) was hit with a shot in the mask but that only seemed to fuel even more fiery determination as he scrambled around the crease to keep the Pens from scoring.

“He wants to play with emotion and that’s great as long as it doesn’t become a distraction,” Bales said. “I think he’s done a great job of controlling that and being aggressive when he needs to be. He’s a real smart goaltender.”

And Brind’Amour said not to be fooled. While McElhinney is the older, calmer type, he has some fire, too.

“They’re competitive in their own way, they just show it differently,” Brind’Amour said. “The will to win is what you want out of every player and these guys have it, for sure. One guy shows it on his sleeve a little more. Deep down, they both have the exact same fire.”

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.