Luke DeCock

McElhinney making the most of a dream delayed, but not deferred

Edmonton Oilers’ Colby Cave (12) and Carolina Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin (74) battle in front of goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Edmonton Oilers’ Colby Cave (12) and Carolina Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin (74) battle in front of goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Setting aside for the moment the one-sided trade that brought Nino Niederreiter and his eight goals in 12 games to town, no contributor to the Carolina Hurricanes’ current run is more unlikely than Curtis McElhinney, who waited 14 years and 11 NHL seasons on seven different teams for this chance.

His time has finally come, the 35-year-old career backup nearing the inevitable end of his career, establishing himself as every bit the option as Petr Mrazek in net in a partnership of equals. And not where he expected to be, either: Caught in a roster crunch in Toronto, McElhinney ended up on waivers at the same time Scott Darling’s injury at the end of the preseason left the Hurricanes searching for help.

Over the next five months, the stopgap option became the first option. McElhinney arrived at the last minute, and now it’s hard to imagine the Hurricanes without him – or where they would be without him.

“He’s been our brick, our wall back there,” Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce said. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him and Mrazek. They’ve both been phenomenal, both of them. They’ve really led the way for us. Carried us even, in some games.”

That’s been true for months now, but sometimes it takes a game like Friday’s 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers, the Hurricanes’ 15th win in the past 21 games, to really drive the point home. There haven’t been many nights this season when the Hurricanes have needed their goalie to flat-out save them on a night where they were just plain flat, but this was one. And at a dangerous time, with no margin for error in the playoff chase and, hey, it’s just Connor McDavid on the other side of the ice.

McElhinney allowed a goal on the first shot he faced – one of three in the first 136 seconds – then stopped the next 40 on a night where McDavid and Leon Draisatl were dynamic and the Hurricanes … were not.

“It’s been nice to get this opportunity here,” McElhinney said. “You don’t always pick the places you end up going to. You just land somewhere. I’ve done it a few times. The last two times it’s worked out pretty good, in Toronto and now here to get the opportunity to play some games.”

The Hurricanes have somehow held McDavid to one goal and five points in six career meetings, and he was scoreless on Friday but certainly not quiet. Pesce and Justin Faulk drew most of the assignment, and Pesce finished the job with a breakup of a Zack Kassian-to-McDavid two-on-one late that indirectly led to Niederreiter’s empty-netter at the other end.

“A guy like that, he’s going to get chances no matter what you do,” Pesce said. “If you can just limit him to a few, it’s a job well done in my eyes.”

As for jobs well done, it’s hard to look past the trade that brought Niederreiter from the Wild in exchange for the useless Victor Rask, who had one goal in 10 games for Minnesota before he got hurt stepping on a puck. Sounds about right.

But the waiver claim of McElhinney was equally larcenous, and potentially even more critical given Darling’s eventual demotion and the month Mrazek missed to injury. Mrazek’s numbers aren’t quite as good as McElhinney’s, but he’s been every bit as reliable, and it’s actually not hard to imagine where the Hurricanes would be without them: This is the kind of game-in, game-out, first-do-no-harm goaltending the Hurricanes have lacked since Cam Ward was in his prime.

McElhinney’s body is has some hard miles on it and only has so many games left in it, but he’s leaving it all on the ice. There’s no reason to hold anything back now.

“The last couple of years, I’ve been feeling successful, there’s just never been an opportunity to play a whole lot of games,” McElhinney said. “Here, it’s been a good chance for me. It’s been fun. It’s tough to put into words. I guess sometimes, you wait a while for things.”

He always envisioned a role like this. He never envisioned waiting this long for it, or it being this rewarding. And as rewarding as it has been for McElhinney, it has been doubly so for the Hurricanes.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.