After a decade of consistent goaltending issues the Carolina Hurricanes finally found a winning combination this season with the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney.
It probably was not the duo anyone anticipated being the one to get them back to the playoffs and in the Eastern Conference Final, but the two veterans exceeded pretty much every expectation anyone could have possibly had for them at the start of the year. They relied on a near 50-50 split of the playing time throughout the regular season and have had to play both of them in the playoffs due to the injury to Mrazek halfway through their Round 2 series against the New York Islanders.
It was at that point that McElhinney stepped in and helped slam the door shut on the Islanders, recording his first three postseason wins.
Now that they are facing a two-game series deficit against the Boston Bruins, with Mrazek allowing 10 goals in his return to the lineup in those first two games, the discussion has shifted as to whether or not the Hurricanes should consider going back to McElhinney for Game 3 on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
“We are every game,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday when asked if he had considered switching goalies. “We talk about it every night, what we’re going to do, and yeah, we’ve had the conversations already of what we’re going to do. We haven’t finalized anything but we’ve certainly discussed the options.”
Brind’Amour was quick to point out that even though they have discussed a goaltending switch, he didn’t think goaltending was the difference in the series. He even argued that given the way the Hurricanes played in Game 2 it probably wouldn’t have mattered what Mrazek did in net.
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“I don’t know if it would have mattered if Petr was great,” he said. “It wouldn’t have mattered. So certainly, we’re down 2-0, but it’s not because of goaltending from our end.”
There is probably a lot of truth to that statement, especially as it relates to their Game 2 play. But the facts are the Hurricanes are returning home facing a near must-win situation and their current starter in net (Mrazek) has been really hot and cold so far in the playoffs and is currently going through one of his “cold” spells, having stopped just 42 of the 52 shots the Bruins have thrown at him.
The thing about Mrazek this postseason — and pretty much all of his postseason starts throughout his career — is that he is either been really, really good, or really, really bad when he has played. Five of his nine career postseason wins have been a shutout. He has two shutouts this postseason alone and a save percentage of .919 or better in five of his 11 appearances. The Hurricanes are also 5-0 in those games.
The flip side of that is he also has five starts with a save percentage lower than .880, which is more than any other goalie in the postseason. And again, he has only appeared in 11 games. Just looking at the other three goalies still playing in the Conference Finals, San Jose’s Martin Jones has been below .880 in four of his 15 starts. St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington has been below .880 in only three of his 14 starts. Boston’s Tuukka Rask has not had one start with a save percentage that low.
There has been a real “boom or bust” element to Mrazek’s play, and with the situation in the series starting to really get serious the Hurricanes are going to need a strong performance in net against a Bruins team that is clicking on all cylinders. Mrazek has shown he is perfectly capable of playing that sort of game in these playoffs. He has also shown he is capable of giving up a lot of goals.
So there is a bit of a dice roll in sticking with him for Game 3, especially given how well McElhinney played in relief of him in Round 2.
There is obviously a sample size issue at play here, and a bit of a recency bias, because McElhinney has played so little in the playoffs and really hasn’t had many opportunities to show some cracks. When we’ve seen him play, he has played well. But he has played so little (and only against what was probably the weakest offensive team in the playoffs) it is next to impossible to know what you are going to get in his next start. At the end of the day we’re talking about a 35-year-old goalie that has been a nice backup throughout his career and never been relied on to be a starter for any length of time on a Stanley Cup run.
Brind’Amour was asked on Monday if the decision on who to start is a difficult one, and was quick to point out that it wasn’t because they have faith in both players.
“Actually it’s an easy decision,” he said. “I know we’ve talked about it a lot, and it’d be easy if I just sat here and said we’re starting [whoever]. But we’re confident any way we go, so do we make a change? We might. But it might be for a different reason than you guys think. We’ll know tomorrow.”
At the end of the day, the fact they have to have this conversation and make this decision is just another sign that goaltending is still the biggest flaw this up-and-coming team has. By having two equally competent and interchangeable goalies, neither of which is a bonafide No. 1 starter, they don’t really have a go-to player that they can count on in a situation like this.
Given the way Mrazek has played so far in the series and the situation the team is in, a change might be justified, especially since you don’t really know which version of him will show up on Tuesday night.
But the same thing is true with option B.
Either way you’re taking a pretty big chance.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.