PITTSBURGH (AP) — Curtis McElhinney’s been doing this a long time. More than a decade into his well-traveled NHL career, the Carolina Hurricanes goaltender understands how things tighten up after the All-Star break.
His team scrambling for a spot in the postseason for the first time in nearly 10 years, McElhinney provided the Hurricanes with a jolt, turning aside 23 shots for his first shutout of the season in a 4-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.
“He made some saves when he needed to tonight and was able to (let) us relax and not have to chase the game,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
Brett Pesce and Jordan Martinook scored from way out to give the Hurricanes the lead and Michael Ferland and Andrei Svechnikov poured it on late as Carolina began a pivotal five-game trip by becoming just the second team all season to hold the Penguins scoreless. McElhinney picked up the ninth shutout of his 11-year career by stuffing Jared McCann and Jake Guentzel with sprawling saves in the first period and never letting up.
“We’re in a critical spot where we need to just have to keep pushing every game,” McElhinney said.
Matt Murray made 28 saves for the Penguins but lost for the third time in four starts since the All-Star break. Pittsburgh struggled to generate any consistent offensive pressure against McElhinney while playing without injured star Evgeni Malkin, who missed his third consecutive game with an upper-body injury.
“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the world but since I’ve been here five years we’ve always battled through injuries and doesn’t matter who is injured, we still have enough guys in here who can step up,” Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said. “We just have to find it.”
The Penguins began Tuesday tied with Washington for second place in the Metropolitan Division while Carolina sat three points behind Columbus for the second wild-card spot in the jam-packed Eastern Conference with 30 games remaining. The Hurricanes have hung around thanks in large part to the steady play of the 35-year-old McElhinney, who improved to 12-6-1 while collecting his first shutout since March 17, 2018, while playing for Toronto.
Pittsburgh tested McElhinney early. McCann, acquired in a trade with Florida last week, collected a loose puck in front and darted across the crease. McElhinney went to his belly in an effort to poke check, missed, and then raised his right leg, which stopped McCann’s shot when McCann couldn’t get the puck in the air. He made another big stop on Guentzel later in the period and fended off a shot by Sidney Crosby from the left circle with a right pad save.
“You look at (McElhinney), he’s just so calm,” Martinook said. “It almost looks easy. Everything looks easy. So for him to come in there and do that job is phenomenal, and gives us more confidence than we already had in him.”
The Hurricanes didn’t let the reprieve go to waste. Martinook took a drop pass from Jacob Slavin and ripped a wrist shot from the top of the left circle that deflected off the end of Murray’s glove and into the net with 44 seconds left in the first.
Pittsburgh had a chance to tie it when Hornqvist drew a penalty then found himself alone on the door step on the ensuing power play midway through the second period. His wrist shot ended up in McElhinney’s glove. Pesce doubled Carolina’s lead shortly after the penalty expired, letting a shot go from atop the left circle that found its way through traffic — including sprawled Pittsburgh defender Jack Johnson and by Murray 12:58 into the second.
That was more than enough for McElhinney, who received plenty of help in front of him. The Penguins didn’t even record a shot over the first 10 minutes of the third period and Carolina’s lead was never in doubt. Ferland scored into an empty net with 1:31 left and Svechnikov added one for insurance with 42 seconds remaining after Murray returned to the ice.
“We had some really good looks, everybody I thought,” Crosby said. “It was a tight game and we’ve got to find ways to win games like that.”
NOTES: Both teams went 0 for 2 on the power play. … Referee Brian Pochmara left in the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return. … Pittsburgh D Justin Schultz skated with his teammates Wednesday morning and is close to a return after fracturing his left leg in Montreal on Oct. 13. … Pittsburgh C Matt Cullen played in his 1,487th career game, tying Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky for 22nd on the all-time list. … Carolina improved 21-1-2 when leading after two periods. … Crosby played in his 914th game, one short of Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux’s franchise record.