If you’re Rod Brind’Amour, what do you do?
The Carolina Hurricanes coach could have an interesting decision to make as the Canes plan ahead for the Eastern Conference finals. Goalies Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney both have been very good and one has to be the starter, although the Canes’ opponent — either the Boston Bruins or Columbus Blue Jackets — and a starting date have not been set.
Mrazek started the first nine games of the playoffs and was vital in knocking off the Washington Capitals in the first round. But he abruptly left Game 2 of the second-round series against the New York Islanders with a lower-body injury, causing McElhinney, as he put it, to “Just grab your helmet and go.”
McElhinney stopped all 17 shots he faced and was the winner as the Canes took a 2-1 victory at the Barclays Center in New York. With Mrazek out, he was back in net as the Canes closed out the series sweep against the Islanders with a pair of 5-2 wins at PNC Arena.
Mrazek has been on the ice, taking shots and getting in workouts, and should be ready when practice resumes Monday. Suddenly, McElhinney has won three straight. What now?
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“Petr and I kind of flip-flopped all year long,” McElhinney said after the Game 4 win over the Isles. “He was the hot hand heading into the playoffs, so he earned that right to get the start in goal in that first round and, you know, he’s been phenomenal in all the games he’s played so far.
“My opportunity comes at his expense, unfortunately. I just go in there, be the calm presence and try to give the guys an opportunity to win.”
Mrazek and the Canes gutted out the seven-game series against the Capitals to begin the playoffs. There were highs and lows —the Caps with a 6-0 home-ice win in Game 5 —before the double-overtime epic that was Game 7 at Capital One Arena in Washington.
In a final showdown between Mrazek and the Caps’ Braden Holtby, Mrazak stopped a blistering one-timer by Alex Ovechkin in the first overtime and it was Holtby who blinked in the second, giving up the winning goal to Brock McGinn. As the Canes’ celebration began, Mrazek appeared to trip as he skated toward McGinn and the mass of players and went sliding chest-first across the ice, not that he minded.
From that high, there was the sight of Mrazek labouring to the bench in Game 2 against the Islanders, slamming his stick as he left the game. It could have been a turning point in the series but McElhinney smoothly slid into the crease and got the job done, again.
“Mac was great,” forward Teuvo Teravainen said, echoing what so many players said.
The McElhinney story, from waiver-wire claim to playoff goalie, continues. He has a 1.56 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, stopping 71 of 75 shots. He was the oldest goalie, at 35, to make his first career playoff start. There’s much to like.
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“I don’t need to say anything. It’s obvious the calibre of goalie he is, the talent he is, the mind he has,” Canes captain Justin Williams said. “He’s solid everywhere you look.”
Mrazek had two shutouts in the nine playoff games, beating the Islanders 1-0 in Game 1 with several high-quality saves, setting a tone for the series. He has a 2.22 GAA and .913 save percentage in the playoffs, winning numbers.
“He’s been great, all year, and obviously now in the playoffs he’s come up huge,” Brind’Amour said after the shutout over the Isles.
The Canes, after two days off, resume practice Monday. Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, recalled from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL on an emergency basis on April 29, has been reassigned to the Checkers.
Boston and Columbus play again, with the Bruins a win away from wrapping up the series and the Blue Jackets wanting to force a Game 7. Then for the Canes, it’s on to the Eastern finals, and Mrazek or McElhinney.