BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Jaccob Slavin just wanted to have a small chat with Curtis McElhinney as the pair left the ice following the end of the second period, but his attempt was denied by a completely locked-in goaltender.
“No idea,” McElhinney said smiling when asked about Slavin’s conversation starter following the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2-1 Game 2 victory over the New York Islanders. “Unless he’s calling for a puck that’s the only thing I’m looking for. Other than that I’m not out there to have conversation.”
McElhinney’s focus was on display as he finished with 17 saves and three thank-yous to deliver to his posts that bailed him out in the third period as the Hurricanes clung to a 2-1 lead.
While the Hurricanes weren’t used to this situation having not had to pull a goalie through their first 90 games, McElhinney’s career as a veteran backup made him fully prepared to come in on a moment’s notice.
“I’ve been doing it for a number of years now,” he said afterward. “It’s a tough position to get into at any point. It took me a little while to learn it, but I feel pretty good at it now.”
McElhinney’s attention had to be sharp before he entered Game 2. Due to the set up at Barclays Center, there is no room on the bench for the visiting backup goalie, who has to sit and watch from the tunnel (much like at Nassau Coliseum). The 35-year-old had been disconnected from his teammates during Game 1 and Game 2 before he was called up, and had to rely on intermissions to pick up any intelligence once back in the dressing room.
But when the call went out for his services, that’s when the adrenaline started flowing.
“[T]he heart rate just goes through the roof when you get into the game right away when you’re thrust into it like that tonight,” he said.
McElhinney, who was drafted in 2002, when teammate Andrei Svechnikov was two years old, couldn’t help but laugh when told he made history Sunday afternoon. He’s now the first goaltender in NHL history to make his first three career playoff appearances with three different teams. His postseason debut — which he played with a broken finger — came back in 2009 while with the Calgary Flames against the Chicago Blackhawks. As a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, he entered Game 2 against the Boston Bruins in mop-up duty of a 7-3 loss. “Obviously, that never goes well,” he noted.
The way McElhinney’s career has played out, it’s no surprise that his teammates and head coach are used to his ability to avoid being swallowed up by the moment. After having lost yet another player to injury when Trevor van Riemsdyk was forced from Game 2 early in the first period, the Hurricanes had to watch as Mrazek left the ice. This wasn’t a typical situation where the backup coming in has less in-season experience than the starter. Carolina had a pretty balanced workload for their goaltenders during the regular season, with Mrazek playing 40 games to McElhinney’s 33, and it’s been a near 50-50 split since the beginning of February.
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“He’s been huge. Both our goalies have been huge,” said Warren Foegele, who scored Carolina’s first goal 17 seconds into the third period. “It’s not easy coming off the bench there and not having faced a shot for 30 minutes or so and come up big with some stellar saves. Curtis is a battler, and he’s shown that throughout the year that he’s capable of making big saves, and so is Petr. We’ve been real fortunate to have two great goalies and tonight you could see why.”
An October waiver claim, McElhinney, who is the Hurricanes’ 2019 Masterton Trophy nominee, is on his seventh NHL team after making his debut during the 2007-08 season. His 33 games played this season was the most in his career — one that’s seen him mainly serve as a backup. Anyone on the Carolina roster will tell you how big a role he’s played in their success this season, along with Mrazek. That’s why there was no panic when the injury occurred and the vet was summoned.
McElhinney replaced Mrazek with the Hurricanes trailing 1-0. Two quick goals to open the third period changed the game, and suddenly Carolina went from being offensively focused to trying to withstand the Islanders’ desperate attempts to tie it up.
Coming into the game when he did helped McElhinney because he fed off his teammates’ energy as they pursued their opening goal. That balance continued as he shut out the Islanders, who were attempting to send the series to Raleigh evened up for Game 3 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN)
“That’s playoff hockey in general,” McElhinney said. “You certainly don’t want to go in there when the guys are kind of shut down and it’s a 5-0 game. Tonight was a fun one to be a part of.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.