Should Hurricanes make goalie change for Game 3?

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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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: First place Coyotes; Zuccarello leads Wild to another win

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Three Stars

1. Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. After a pretty miserable start to the season the Wild are starting to get back on track and picked up their fifth win in a row on Thursday by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4. Zuccarello was the big star for the Wild with three points (his first three-point game of the season) including the game-winner in the third period. His goal came just eight seconds after Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn had tied the game. Things looked bleak for the Wild’s playoff chances in the first month of the season, but their win on Thursday moved them — at least temporarily — into the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

2. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes. And which team sits on top of the Pacific Division after Thursday’s action? It is none other than the Arizona Coyotes thanks to their 3-1 win in Philadelphia. They have been road warriors this season and now own a 10-3-3 record over their first 16 away games. They used a two-goal effort from Kessel — as well as another great goaltending performance — on Thursday to get their latest win. Kessel has yet to make the big offensive impact the Coyotes were hoping for this season, but he tends to score goals in bunches and maybe this is the start of one of those runs. Arizona is back in action on Friday when Kessel makes his first return to Pittsburgh since the Penguins traded him over the summer.

3. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin scored the game-winning goal in his return to Columbus, but the biggest difference maker for the Rangers in their 3-2 win was their goalie. Georgiev was sensational, stopping 45 out of 47 shots in helping to steal one for the blue shirts. Read all about that game here.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Petr Mrazek had an eventful night for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. He stopped a lot of shots, picked up a shootout win, and got punched in the face. Read all about it here.
  • Joe Pavelski scored the overtime winner for the Dallas Stars in their 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks let a 3-0 third period lead slip away in Boston against the Bruins, but Jonathan Toews bailed them out in overtime with the game-winning goal.
  • Milan Lucic was finally able to get his first goal of the season for the Calgary Flames. It turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Matt Calvert had a goal and an assist for the Colorado Avalanche in their 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

The Wild looked like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lightning looked like the Washington Generals on this Jason Zucker goal.

The Colorado Avalanche have their top line back together, and Gabriel Landeskog wasted no time in making an impact in his return to the lineup.

Maybe this is the shot that gets Johnny Gaudreau rolling for the Calgary Flames.

Blooper of the Night

Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk accidentally hip-checked a referee in their 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Factoids

  • It was a highly competitive night around the league with eight of the nine games being decided by a single goal, including four overtime games. The only game decided by more than one goal was Arizona’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, and even that was a one-goal game until a late empty-net goal from Kessel. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to Ryan Pulock‘s overtime goal the New York Islanders extended their point streak on home ice to 12 games. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Toews’ overtime goal in Boston was the 14th of his career in the regular season, moving him into a tie for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 3, Montreal Canadiens 2
Minnesota Wild 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 4
New York Islanders 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Carolina Hurricanes 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (SO)
New York Rangers 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Dallas Stars 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Calgary Flames 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Mrazek gets punched in mask by Thornton; leads Hurricanes to win

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It was an eventful night for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek.

When it comes to the important stuff — stopping pucks to prevent goals and get a win — he was about as good as he could have possibly been by turning aside 28 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime, as well as all three shots he faced in a shootout, to help lift his team to a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and bust out of a mini-slump that had seen them lose three of their previous four.

He also had a run-in with Sharks forward Joe Thornton that saw him get punched squarely in the mask.

It all started mid-way through the second period when Thornton attempted to jab at the puck that Mrazek had covered in the crease. Mrazek, taking exception to that jab, then chased after Thornton, swung his stick at the back of Thornton’s leg, stood up to get in his face … then got punched.

There were penalties handed out here, with Thornton getting two minutes each for roughing and slashing, while Mrazek was given a two-minute minor for slashing.

Mrazek was asked after the game if it is tough getting back into the game and maintaining focus after a scrum like that, and he was quick to say that’s actually better for him because it makes him feel like he is in the game.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Panarin scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi leaves game after scary fall (Video)

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Scary scene in Montreal on Thursday night during the first period of the Canadiens’ game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Second-year forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi had to leave the game after an ugly fall that resulted in him hitting his head off the ice. He remained on the ice for a few moments before being helped off the ice by teammates with his head slumped over.

The Canadiens announced that he was out for the remainder of the game due to an “upper-body injury.”

You can see the sequence in the video above.

It all happened after Kotkaniemi was pinned against the boards by Nikita Zadorov, and then fell backwards. There are a lot of problems with Zadorov’s hit, including the fact it looked to be very late (the puck was long gone from Kotkaniemi when Zadorov initiated the hit) as well as the fact he appeared to lift his right leg and swing into the back of Kotkaniemi’s, knocking him backwards. That doesn’t really qualify as a slew-foot, but everything about the play itself seemed unnecessary.

There was no penalty called on the play.

The Canadiens are already playing without two key forwards in Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.