Luke DeCock

McElhinney not the goalie the Hurricanes expected, but the one they needed

Carolina Hurricanes’ Haydn Fleury (4) battles Florida Panthers’ Frank Vatrano (72) in front of goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.
Carolina Hurricanes’ Haydn Fleury (4) battles Florida Panthers’ Frank Vatrano (72) in front of goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. Associated Press

When they went into the season looking for an savior in goal, who thought the Carolina Hurricanes would land on the guy they claimed on waivers as a stopgap injury replacement? Unlikely, to say the least.

So if you’re Curtis McElhinney, tossed away by the Toronto Maple Leafs after a solid season as a backup in favor of a younger, flashier option, it’s OK to laugh a little at your good fortune with your new team.

“It feels good,” McElhinney said. “It’s all about building something here right now. We’ve got a little bit of steam going.”

McElhinney stopped 34 shots in his third straight win, 4-1 over the Florida Panthers on Friday in a game that, by the third period, had morphed into a giddy sing-along the likes of which had not been seen at PNC Arena in some years to conclude a 4-1-1 homestand.

When the Hurricanes claimed McElhinney on waivers after Scott Darling was injured in his final preseason start, they thought they were getting a solid No. 2 option when given a reasonable workload, a reasonable assessment at this point in the 35-year-old’s career. Anything beyond that was a bonus.

This is the bonus.

Given the other options, the Hurricanes will ride this heater as long as they can. And if McElhinney can keep it up, that might be a while.

Petr Mrazek will start on Saturday at the New York Islanders if deemed fully healthy, Darling if not – “I don’t think it’s fair to throw (McElhinney) back out there,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said, “although I kind of want to” – and after that there isn’t a back-to-back on the schedule for two weeks.

That includes another meeting with the Leafs, McElhinney having avenged being waived once already in Wednesday’s 5-2 win over Toronto. That followed last weekend’s win over the New Jersey Devils, where McElhinney stabilized the ragged-at-times Hurricanes.

This run comes after McElhinney was all but forgotten, kept off the ice as Mrazek and Darling got the work and ticketed for a return to the waiver wire after making one start in the space of a month, a loss to the St. Louis Blues in which his lack of practice time left him rusty. With Mrazek out, McElhinney was tuned up by the time he finally got what was essentially a third chance against the Devils.

“He’s a pro,” Brind’Amour said. “He trains. He comes in on off days, he trains when no one’s around. He takes care of his body. He gets it. He knows what he needs to do to be ready and obviously he’s been going great.”

McElhinney’s third straight win was the best of the three, right down to a short-handed glove save from the splits on Nick Bjustad in the slot. In this streak, he’s stopped 97 of 101 shots but perhaps more notably the Hurricanes have looked more comfortable and more confident with McElhinney in net. Wins and losses are as flawed a measure of goaltender performance as they are for pitchers, but McElhinney’s 6-2-0 record does reflect to some degree how his teammates seem to trust him.

It’s more difficult to put a number on how much they seem to like him, except to say that he’s the kind of easy-going veteran who can fit seamlessly in any locker room, and certainly has fit in here.

“He’s just very calming back there,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. “It doesn’t seem like he’s panicked at all. Ever. That’s what you want from a goalie. You want to have the confidence your goalie is going to be your last line of defense there. He’s been great, ever since he came here. You pull for guys who work hard for you. He’s worked his butt off for us in practice every day. He’s inserted himself in a positive manner into an uncomfortable situation.”

That sense of comfort seemed to bleed into the crowd, which was singing and yelling and dancing throughout the third period, long before Jordan Martinook sealed his hat trick with an empty-netter. It’s easier to enjoy a three-goal lead when you’re not on the edge of your seat expecting every half-chance to find its way into the net. It was as happy as PNC has been in a long, long time, and McElhinney had a lot to do with that.

As long as it lasts, however long that may be, McElhinney is going to keep on getting the chance to do make that happen.

McElhinney now has the best numbers of any of the three goalies. He may not be the goalie the Hurricanes expected, but at this point in the season, he’s the goalie the Hurricanes needed.

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