Two goalies have been better than one for the Carolina Hurricanes this season.
Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have both done their part to help the Canes end their nine-year playoff drought. If the Stanley Cup playoffs really are all about goaltending, the Canes feel good about both of their options.
“You only need one, generally, but we’ve had two all year and guys that we can count on,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for both of them.”
The Canes open the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday on the road against the Washington Capitals, last year’s Stanley Cup champions. Mrazek, who has won 11 of his past 13 starts, is expected to start in Game 1 but Brind’Amour hasn’t ruled out using both goalies in the playoffs.
The Mrazek-McElhinney platoon wasn’t the plan anyone had in October but the duo has been exactly what the team has needed.
“I think we’ve had a good thing going, pretty much the whole year,” McElhinney said. “I was getting the wins early on and it seems like the last few weeks here, Pete has really taken off and come into his own. We’re not here if he doesn’t go on a hot streak there and really play lights out like he has.”
The Canes have had success in the playoffs with a second option in net. In their run to the Cup finals in 2002, backup goalie Kevin Weekes had a star turn in the first-round series win over New Jersey before regular starter Arturs Irbe returned to lead the team to the conference title.
In ‘06, Martin Gerber was the primary starter during the regular season but Cam Ward, then a rookie, emerged in the opening round against Montreal after the team fell behind 0-2. Gerber then rebounded in the conference finals to win an important game at Buffalo before Ward returned and was the playoff MVP for his play against Edmonton in the Cup finals.
A second goalie is more of an insurance policy, though, than a direct path to playoff success.
“You hope one guy peaks and gets hot at the right time but if you have two reliable options you have faith in, it’s an added bonus,” McElhinney said.
The Canes entered this season, the first without Ward since 2006, with the plan of using Mrazek and Scott Darling, who signed a $16.6 million contract after the Canes traded for him in April 2017. When Darling got hurt in the preseason, McElhinney was claimed on waivers from Toronto. When McElhinney and Mrazek started the season strong, Darling became expendable.
Darling was put on waivers at the end of November but wasn’t claimed. He is with the team’s minor-league affiliate in Charlotte. The Canes are actually paying more than twice as much to the goalie who is not here ($4.75 million to Darling) than they are for Mrazek and McElhinney combined ($2.35 million).
The complementary personalities of McElhinney (measured and reserved) and Mrazek (animated and fiery) have been a perfect fit for the Canes.
McElhinney, a 35-year-old veteran, has been a steady, calming veteran presence. On his seventh team in 11 NHL season, McElhinney has set career highs in starts (33) and wins (20) with a 2.58 goals against average.
When the Canes started to turn their season around on New Year’s Eve, it was “Mac” who won 10 of his 12 starts as the team climbed out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
“Our rock,” winger Jordan Martinook said. “You can’t say enough good things about him or ‘Raz.’ “
Mrazek, a 27-year-old from the Czech Republic, signed a one-year, $1.5 million free-agent deal last summer. In 40 starts, he went 23-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA (which ranks eighth-best in the NHL).
A former starter in Detroit, Mrazek got traded last season (to Philadelphia) and was looking to get his career back on track.
“(Last season), I had some good games and then some bad games,” Mrazek said. “I wanted the opportunity to show that I can be ‘The Guy.’”
Mrazek has been outstanding down the stretch and even at times can provide an emotional, energetic lift — which is not typically the role of a goalie. His 31-save performance in a 4-3 overtime win in Florida on March 2 was particularly memorable to his teammates.
“He was super pumped up after that (Florida win),” McElhinney said. “It was great to see. It’s not my thing, I’m calmer and more relaxed, but I love watching him.”
Cognizant the emotional outbursts can lose their effect if overdone, Mrazek has tried to harness his enthusiasm.
“Sometimes you have to be calm in there and sometimes you have to show your emotion a little bit and be happy around the guys,” Mrazek said.
That’s the best part about the goalie dynamic, Martinook said, is the fast friendship the two have formed.
“They’re pretty tight,” Martinook said. “When we see those guys get along, and they’re genuinely excited for the other guy, it’s contagious to the rest of us.”