Should Hurricanes make goalie change for Game 3?

4 Comments

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.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“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: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

Leave a comment

Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

3 Comments

An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

Leave a comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.