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Goalie switch to McElhinney is the right move, but not for the obvious reason

Carolina Hurricanes dominated by Boston Bruins in Game 2

Check out photos as the Carolina Hurricanes battle the Boston Bruins in game two of the Stanley Cup playoffs Sunday, May 12, 2019.
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Check out photos as the Carolina Hurricanes battle the Boston Bruins in game two of the Stanley Cup playoffs Sunday, May 12, 2019.

Petr Mrazek was in the net usually reserved for the starting goalie and he was off the ice first Monday, all indications the starting job remains his, to the extent anything can be determined from practice, especially in the heat of a playoff series when transparency isn’t exactly a priority.

More could be read into Rod Brind’Amour’s cryptic remarks about his goaltending Monday morning, and while the Carolina Hurricanes coach gave no outward indication of who will get the start in Game 3 on Tuesday, as the Hurricanes return home facing a 2-0 deficit to the Boston Bruins, close observers of the team will recognize the real message behind the coach’s words.

“Do we make a change? We might,” Brind’Amour said. “But it might be for a different reason than you guys think.”

There is every reason to make a change, and not because Mrazek is to blame for the two losses in Boston, which is the obvious reason everyone might suspect. Mrazek wasn’t great, and the first goal Sunday was a doozy, but the Hurricanes played all of one period of decent hockey the entire weekend.

The “different reason” has to be this: The team needs a change, a collective slap in the face. The team in front of Mrazek (or McElhinney) needs to wake up, and changing goalies is the closest thing left to a steaming cup of coffee at 5 a.m.

Since the Scott Darling situation was finally settled by his departure to the minors, this has been a two-goalie team, veering from Mrazek to McElhinney and back again as circumstances dictate, even already within these playoffs, albeit not by choice. It’s time to veer again.

“That’s kind of how we’ve rolled all year long,” McElhinney said Monday. “If that opportunity does present itself, be ready for it.”

The switching has worked, on a grand scale, because each goalie has a distinct style that bleeds into the way the team plays. Each delivers something different.

Mrazek is a scrambler, a battler, and his energy and indefatigability gives the Hurricanes the will to fight when they need it.

McElhinney is cool, wasting no energy, and his stoic calmness in net gives the Hurricanes mental peace when they need it.

Mrazek has proven the better goalie for the long term, but not always the short term. When Mrazek goes off track, his strengths become his weaknesses. He overcommits. He flails. There was some of that Sunday afternoon. The Hurricanes don’t have time for him to play his way back into form the way they might in December.

The rest of the team, meanwhile, was a mess in its own zone, turning the puck over again and again, getting pinned deep, leaving the net undefended. Like Mrazek, they were trying to do too much and got caught doing it.

All of the Hurricanes’ problems in this series start in their own end, and not necessarily in net. When they get caught in their own zone, they can’t generate speed through the neutral zone, can’t activate their forecheck, can’t play their game.

A switch to McElhinney could settle things down. At the least, he would impose order. He would help create structure. It may not improve the goaltending, but it may improve the Hurricanes’ overall game, and that’s where they need help.

“I don’t know if Petr was great, it would have mattered,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re down 2-0 but it’s not because of goaltending.”

Brind’Amour’s loyalty occasionally veers into stubbornness, as it has with the power play and as it did Sunday when he left Mrazek in to play the third period when McElhinney could have used 20 minutes of work in a game already lost, whether he starts Tuesday or not.

But Brind’Amour is a pragmatist at heart, and if putting Mrazek back in net to start the series was the pragmatic move – as opposed to the sentimental choice to stick with McElhinney and his three-game winning streak – so is making the switch now.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.