Luke DeCock

Goalie Petr Mrazek still the Carolina Hurricanes’ wild card

Carolina Hurricanes’ goalie Petr Mrazek: ‘We stuck together. We played for each other.’

Carolina Hurricanes' goalie Petr Mrazek talks about how the Hurricanes beat the Devils to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs. The Hurricanes won 3-1.
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Carolina Hurricanes' goalie Petr Mrazek talks about how the Hurricanes beat the Devils to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs. The Hurricanes won 3-1.

For all that is different for the Carolina Hurricanes from one year ago, and the changes over the past 12 months are multifold, everything still circles back to the same player.

Petr Mrazek.

Not to put it all on the goalie’s shoulders, but some of it’s unavoidable.

The difference between then and now is that the Hurricanes know Mrazek, who resurrected his career here after signing a one-year deal and carried the team into the playoffs, and aren’t going into the season wondering if he can handle the workload. They know he can. But he still has to do it.

The Hurricanes are in dramatically better shape in terms of goaltending than a year ago, when they were still hoping Scott Darling would pan out, before the last-minute waiver addition of Curtis McElhinney saved the season.

There’s more room for error this time around with veteran James Reimer as a sort of 1B, a backup with starting experience. But for the Hurricanes to be the best they can be, they need Mrazek to be the guy.

“He fits perfectly with what we’re trying to do,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Wednesday at Hurricanes media day, “but everybody’s got to prove themselves daily, and he’s no different.”

As good as he was in the first round against the Washington Capitals, Mrazek’s struggles against the Boston Bruins in the conference finals after returning from an injury helped put the Hurricanes in a 2-0 hole on their way to getting swept, although there were many reasons for that. That led to a brief examination of other free-agent options on both sides in July, with the Hurricanes briefly pursuing Semyon Varlamov, before the team and the goalie realized there wasn’t anything better out there. The Hurricanes and Mrazek ended up back together, their fates again entwined.

Even without captain Justin Williams -- “We’re moving on,” Brind’Amour said several times Wednesday -- the Hurricanes are in better shape across the board going into this season. They’ve upgraded at center (Erik Haula), added a finisher (Ryan Dzingel) and still have one of the best blue lines in the league, at least as far as the top two pairs are concerned.

The experience of winning in the playoffs will only strengthen the culture Williams and Brind’Amour built, and Brind’Amour should only be more comfortable in his second year behind the bench. Throw in the expected sophomore improvement of Andrei Svechnikov, and there’s a lot more reason for optimism than there was last September.

But just as the Hurricanes labored in the playoff wilderness with substandard goaltending as they swung and missed on Eddie Lack and Darling before hitting on Mrazek and McElhinney, the success of this entire project continues to teeter on that precipice.

There’s a reason Mrazek was available last summer; his game collapsed in his final years in Detroit and Philadelphia. Mrazek said Wednesday a big part of last season’s success was his work with Jaromir Jagr’s sports psychologist, something he started last summer, which has him in a different frame of mind now than at any point in his career.

“He was the right person I needed to talk to about hockey situations, about what to do in your head,” Mrazek said. “I think that’s maybe 60-80 percent of your game.”

If he can back it up, and there’s every reason to believe he can, the Hurricanes will be in good shape. But there’s obviously some internal doubt. If there wasn’t, Mrazek would have been re-signed before he reached free agency. Mrazek had something to prove here last season, and he proved it. Now he has to prove it again.

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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.