Hurricanes finally find stability in net

Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek have given Carolina enough saves to make the team’s past struggles in goal an afterthought

The well-traveled Curtis McElhinney is with his seventh NHL team, but he may finally have earned a shot to be a true No. 1 goalie with the Hurricanes. (Julio Cortez / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes, in the midst of a four-game winning streak heading into Tuesday night’s road game against the Islanders, have found their scoring touch. With 17 goals during those four wins, the Hurricanes discovered that offense, not goaltending, has been their Achilles’ heel.

“Our goalies have been fine,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said back on Dec. 22 following a 3-0 home loss to the Penguins. “That’s certainly not the issue. But when you don’t score, everything gets magnified. The mistakes you make get magnified. But goaltending is certainly not an issue.”

But it does help to have reliable goaltending. And for the first time in a long time, the Hurricanes are getting it.

It’s been more than five weeks since Carolina came to terms with the fact its big-ticket acquisition from the 2017 offseason, Scott Darling, was not the answer in net.

Instead, the team has hitched its wagon to a career backup in the twilight of his career and an in-his-prime journeyman looking to re-establish himself as a starter.

Darling, who still has two remaining years on a contract that will pay him a combined of $7.1 million and cost $4.15 million against the salary cap the next two years, seems a likely candidate for an offseason buyout after he was sent down to the AHL in late November. In two seasons with Carolina, Darling has just 15 wins in 51 appearances with a goals-against average and save percentage on the wrong side of 3.00 and .900.

Enter 35-year-old Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek, who will turn 27 on Valentine’s Day, as the two goalies the Hurricanes have leaned on in 2018-19.

Heading into the game against the Islanders, McElhinney (9-5-1, 2.20, .923) has been the better of the two since he was claimed off waivers from Toronto prior to the start of the season,  ranking as one of five goalies in the NHL to have played at least 10 games and post a .920 or better save percentage and goals-against average under 2.30.

“He makes the big save when he has to, gets a whistle when he has to to kind of get us to the right change,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said of McElhinney following Carolina’s 4-2 win Jan. 4 over Columbus, one of seven NHL team’s the veteran has played for in his 11-year career. “Whatever we need, he’s been great all year.”

Mrazek hasn’t been as good as McElhinney, but still an improvement over Darling.

At 8-8-2 with a .900 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average, Mrazek is slightly below his career averages. But after his first start since returning from injury Dec. 2 — days after Darling was first demoted to the Charlotte Checkers — his save percentage has been a respectable .912 with a GAA right around his season average.

When Mrazek has gotten goal support, he’s been good. Since coming back from injury, Mrazek has received seven goals of support in his five losses — four came in one game, a 6-4 defeat in Montreal on Dec. 13. In Mrazek’s previous start, captain Justin Williams had lamented the team’s inability to provide offense for their goalies.

“I told him we’d get him some, and we didn’t,” Williams said of the 4-1 loss in Toronto on Dec. 11. “So I feel we let him down, yeah.”

The team, however, has picked up Mrazek during the recent winning streak, scoring five times in his recent wins in Philadelphia and Ottawa — particularly timely against the Senators, against whom Mrazek struggled.

So what does the future hold? Both McElhinney and Mrazek are on expiring contracts and will be unrestricted free agents this summer. If Carolina is in the playoff picture come the Feb. 25 trade deadline, the team will likely opt to keep both. As for 2019-20, there are options.

McElhinney would probably welcome a one-way contract that extends his NHL career.

Mrazek came to the Hurricanes with designs on being a No. 1 again, and while he outplayed Darling, he has been bested by McElhinney. The Hurricanes probably wouldn’t want to commit to more than Mrazek is getting this season ($1.5 million on a one-year deal), especially with Darling’s contract — buyout or not — on the books.

There’s also Charlotte Checkers starter Alex Nedeljkovic, a fourth-year pro who’s biggest knock has been his 6-foot, 190-pound Mrazek-esque frame. He is likely ready to assume the backup or 1B job.

Regardless of how things shape up for next season, the Hurricanes have found stability in net for this season. If the goals keep coming, they may be able to think about their offseason moves later than they have in a decade.