Fresh off their sweep of the New York Islanders, the Carolina Hurricanes are in a position to take a breath. They can rest and try to heal and get ready for either the Boston Bruins or the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This break in the action is a good time to think about one of the most important factors in their playoff success. First, the play of Petr Mrázek and second the play of Curtis McElhinney. These two goaltenders have made certain that the Hurricanes’ crease is in good hands.
Petr Mrázek: No Caps in My Crease
For the entirety of the seven-game series against the Washington Capitals, Mrázek stood tall. He missed what many felt was “one he should have had” right out of the gate in Game 1, but played lights out for the entire series.
Considering that Mrázek’s opponent across the ice was the defending Stanley Cup-champion goaltender Braden Holtby, considering that the Capitals were loaded with goal-scorers, and considering that he was going to be fending off blast after blast from Alex Ovechkin, Mrázek exceeded all expectations.
The oddsmakers said the Caps were favored but Mrázek’s play said: “No, not in my crease.” He defended his goal with fierce determination and steely focus. He was not going to be the reason the Hurricanes would be sent home. He may be the reason they moved on to Round 2.
Petr Mrázek: My Crease Needs Help
The series with the Islanders came and went with a whirlwind of storylines: Brock Nelson’s pat on McElhinney’s head; Trevor Van Riemsdyk’s shoulder injury which will keep him out for 4-6 months after surgery on Saturday, May 4; and the sudden exit of Mrázek from Game 2 with a lower-body injury. The Hurricanes were starting to look like the walking wounded.
Fortunately, when Mrázek’s crease needed help, help came in a huge way. As he had all season, Curtis McElhinney stepped into the crease and made it his own. He finished Game 2 against the Islanders with 17 saves, securing the win and enabling his Hurricanes to head home with an astounding 2-0 lead in the series.
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said after the game that there was no anxiety involved with McElhinney going in for Mrázek. USAToday.com quoted Brind’Amour as saying,
Mac has been great for us all year and he was ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
McElhinney: I Got This Crease
To Brind’Amour’s point, McElhinney and Mrázek have been successful all season as a tandem. His coming in to play was not a giant abnormality and for many, this use of the two of them has been a large part of the Hurricanes’ success this season.
The Islanders’ tandem – Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss – never seemed to be able to find the traction they had in the regular season. After handling the Pittsburgh Penguins with apparent ease in the first series, Lehner was unable to keep the ‘Canes out of his crease. In hindsight, Islanders head coach Barry Trotz might have done better to go with Greiss, given his history at the PNC Arena,
By starting Game 3, McElhinney became the oldest goalie in NHL history to start his first playoff game. Besides the experience that comes with age and having been a goaltender in the NHL for many years, “Mac” is a calming presence in the Hurricanes’ crease. From the start of his time with the team, he has given them something they have not had in a long time: confidence in their goaltender.
Mrázek is a wild man, emotional and fiery. His excitement shows throughout games, with a spectacular save begetting a huge display of excitement which leads to another spectacular save and on and on. By contrast, McElhinney is cool and calm, whether he is standing on his head or having a difficult night. They are the right combination at the right time for these Hurricanes.
Even antics by the Islanders’ Brock Nelson could not shake McElhinney. He patted McElhinney on the head after Josh Bailey scored an Islanders goal. McElhinney went about his business, letting his teammates have his back, as Dougie Hamilton returned the favor to Nelson in the ceremonial handshake line after the Hurricanes completed a 4-0 sweep of the Islanders.
The Hurricanes have a few days off to heal and rest. Mrázek may be ready to get back in the crease, but will Brind’Amour continue to ride McElhinney? It’s good the Hurricanes have options, and when it comes to covering the crease, there is not a wrong choice. They are both “jerks” and that’s a good thing.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.