Sports

Mrazek, Canes fighting back from rocky start against Caps

For the Carolina Hurricanes, it was a rather ominous start to their Stanley Cup playoff series against the Washington Capitals.

Certainly for goalie Petr Mrazek.

In the first period of the opener, Caps center Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck into the Carolina zone and sent a wrister toward the net. Rather surprisingly, what appeared to be a mostly harmless 40-foot shot whizzed by Mrazek’s glove and into the net and the Caps led 1-0.

The Caps went on to a 4-2 win in Game 1 at Capital One Arena, then won an overtime thriller 4-3 in Game 2 after an even more unlikely event -- a goal from defenseman Brooks Orpik. Brooks Orpik?

Given that, there were questions if Mrazek would be the starting goalie in Game 3 or if Canes might give Curtis McElhinney a start. But coach Rod Brind’Amour again went with the choice of goaltending coach Mike Bales -- Mrazek again -- and Mrazek responded with his fourth career playoff shutout Monday with 18 saves as the Canes rolled 5-0.

“He’s been good,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday. “Maybe he’d want that one (by Backstrom) back but he’s made so many big saves. Even (Monday) night, there wasn’t a lot of work obviously, but it was the early work that for me made the difference in the game. They had the first scoring chance of the game. If that goes in who knows where the game goes, He’s been very solid.”

Coaches like to talk about teams building a game, steadily improving period to period. Mrazek has been building a series and will get a fourth straight start Thursday in Game 4 at PNC Arena as the Canes look to square the Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup.

Mrazek allowed three goals on 17 shots in the opener, albeit with two Caps scores coming on the power play. Even the first goal might have been stopped had defenseman Jaccob Slavin closed the gap a little more on Backstrom or not unwittingly become a partial screen when Backstrom did shoot.

Mrazek gave up four goals on 33 shots in Game 2, Orpik scoring on the only shot of overtime. He then had the shutout in the Canes’ first home playoff game since May 2009 and appeared buoyed by all the bedlam along the rest of the Canes, later saying the frenzied sellout crowd was “an extra player on the ice for us.”

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Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek is surrounded by his teammate as they celebrate their 5-0 victory over the Washington Capitals on Monday, April 15, 2019 at the PNC Arena on Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Those who know Mrazek best talk about his tenacity. While not the biggest goalie in the league at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he can be fiery, combative at times -- encroach in his crease and he can lash out -- and intensely competitive.

Tom Dempsey was Mrazek’s first goalie coach in North America after Mrazek, then 17, arrived from his native Czech Republic to play junior hockey for the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League in 2009-2010.

“He had no equipment because his club team in Czech wouldn’t let him bring it,” Dempsey said. “They didn’t want him to come. Petr had to use one of our other goalie’s used equipment from the previous year.

“He was the best goalie in the camp. That opened my eyes right there. It was his attitude, his athleticism, his work ethic. Can you imagine, the goalie we had before was 5-foot-8 and Petr had to wear his equipment and he was the best goalie. Most North America goalies wouldn’t have gone on the ice. Right from that point, I went, ‘Whoa, this guy is special.’ ”

Dempsey said when he told Mrazek that he had once coached goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Mrazek’s response was, “I will be better than him. You will see.”

A cocky kid? “I would say he has that quiet confidence,” Dempsey said, “and he backs it up.”

Mrazek, 27, was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 2010 and made his NHL debut for the Wings in 2013 -- winning 5-1 -- while helping the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL to a Calder Cup championship. He made his Stanley Cup playoff debut in April 2015, making 44 saves in a 3-2 Wings win over Tampa Bay, and later had two shutouts in the series, becoming the first Wings rookie goalie to do that since Harry Lumley in 1945.

Mrazek had the look of a star in the making for the Wings but it didn’t work out that way. The losses built up, his confidence waned and his technique suffered. Traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in February 2018, he was not given a qualifying offer by the Flyers after the season.

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Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek (34) has words with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (8) during the third period of the Carolina Hurricanes’ 5-0 victory over the Washington Capitals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 15, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Suddenly available as a free agent, Mrazek signed a one-year contract with Carolina for $1.5 million, a bargain price for the Canes, saying he wanted only the chance to prove he could be a No. 1 goalie. Teaming with McElhinney, the two have given the Canes quality goaltending -- McElhinney quiet and cool in net and Mrazek, who won 11 of his last 13 starts in the regular season, bringing more of the fire.

“Petr is an emotional guy and I think he thrives in those situations,” Bales said. “I think he’s done a great job of being aggressive when he needs to be.”

When the Canes clinched the playoff berth April 4 with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena, Mrazek was named the game’s first star. Sitting down at the bench for a postgame interview, he beamed as he shouted, “We’re in! We’re in! Yes!” and then letting out a “Wh-oooo!”

“It’s amazing. It’s the best part of hockey,” Mrazek said of the playoffs.

With more still to come.

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.
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