As far as single-game performances go, Sunday’s outing was arguably the Carolina Hurricanes’ most inspiring of the season.
Hosting the Nashville Predators, a Western Conference juggernaut that appears primed to make another legitimate post-season run come April, the Hurricanes were outstanding from the drop of the puck. Carolina carried the play, took the game to the Predators and out-chanced a club some consider a Stanley Cup frontrunner. The Hurricanes chased Vezina Trophy contender Pekka Rinne from the crease for just the second time all season. Sebastian Aho had hats rain down on him when he notched his second career hat trick as part of a four-point night. More than half of the Carolina roster chipped in on the scoresheet. And when all was said and done, they skated to a 6-3 victory, celebrated in now-typical Hurricanes fashion and left the ice having picked up their seventh win in eight tries.
All of a sudden, there’s honest-to-goodness belief once again that this could be the year in Carolina. It’s hard to blame the Hurricanes’ faithful for feeling that way, either. And quite possibly chief among the reasons Carolina has allowed itself some hope — something that has been in short supply over the course of a league-worst nine-year playoff drought — is that the Hurricanes are getting something that has long felt impossible: capable goaltending.
For several seasons now, particularly through the Bill Peters era, the crease concerns loomed larger than anything in Carolina. In fact, during the tenure of the now-departed coach, who was replaced by former assistant and once Hurricanes captain Rod Brind’Amour in the off-season, it was often Carolina’s most apparent Achilles heel. Despite being seen as a potential wild-card contender for the past few seasons, the Hurricanes were continually sunk by subpar netminding, and in no season was it worse than the 2017-18 campaign. Carolina was the sexy pick to go from Eastern Conference cannon fodder to wild-card contender only for their season to fall apart behind league-worst goaltending. The Hurricanes finished a woeful 14 points shy of the final berth in the conference despite sitting only two seeds shy of the last wild-card spot.
Unfortunately, that was par for the course for a club whose best season between the pipes in the past four campaigns — best, remember — was when their goaltenders combined to finish with the fourth-worst save percentage in the NHL. It was expected that the Hurricanes’ fate would be much the same this season, too, when they seemingly failed to upgrade in goal over the course of the off-season. As it turns out, though, the additions of Petr Mrazek and waiver-claim Curtis McElhinney have paid dividends.
While hardly the most star-studded duo in the league, Mrazek and McElhinney have combined to unseat incumbent starter Scott Darling and take the reins in Carolina. After a slow start to the season in which he posted an .880 SP across his first eight appearances, Mrazek has rounded into form with a .911 SP across his past dozen games, including a 20-save victory in Sunday’s clash with the Predators. More impressive, though, has been McElhinney, who has quietly turned in an impressive campaign. Among the 50 goaltenders with at least 15 games played, he ranks eighth with a .921 SP and third with a 2.30 goals-against average.
The result? A combined performance in the Carolina crease that ranks 19th at all strengths with a .899 SP and 17th at 5-on-5 with a .917 SP. And limited only to the past 25 games, over which one of Mrazek or McElhinney has started all but two games, the Hurricanes have the 14th-best all-strengths goaltending (.906 SP) and 16th-best crease at 5-on-5 (.921 SP).
No doubt, a big part of Carolina’s goaltending success is finding a pair of keepers who’ve been able to succeed in a system that is one of the most limiting in the league. That style of play has been the club’s calling card for a while now, too. Under Peters, the Hurricanes grew to become one of the most dominant puck possession clubs in the NHL, which is what made them a time-and-again favorite to claw their way into the post-season. That has continued under Brind’Amour, as well, and it may very well be the thing that ends up powering this Carolina team into the post-season.
Just consider the Hurricanes’ underlying numbers for a second, according to NaturalStatTrick. At 5-on-5, Carolina ranks second in Corsi percentage (55.1), second in shots percentage (55.2), second in scoring chance percentage (55) and second in high-danger chance percentage (56.2). Those are numbers commensurate with some of the best of the best, including top clubs such as the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames. Adjusted for score and venue, the Hurricanes respective ranks are second, second, fourth and third. And at all strengths, it’s much the same. Carolina has been a team that carries the play on any given night. That’s a recipe for success if you add a dash of decent goaltending.
But what is it that will put the Hurricanes over the top? How can this team go from another year spent as an also-ran to a drought-busting wild-card club?
First, Carolina is going to need to find some finish. That’s the greatest area of concern right now. The Hurricanes are piling up the shots, but while similar possession clubs such as the Sharks and Leafs and Lightning boast team-wide shooting percentages over and above 8.5 percent, Carolina is mired in the NHL’s basement when it comes to shooting success at 6.3 percent. Insert your Jeff Skinner jokes here, sure, but the Hurricanes have pieces — Micheal Ferland? Dougie Hamilton? — that could be used as trade bait to land a pure scorer. Adding a talent who can fill the net with some consistency is maybe the only real tweak this roster needs right now in their pursuit of a wild-card spot.
But the other, arguably more important piece of the puzzle is going to be out of the Hurricanes’ hands: some help. With four points separating Carolina from the Montreal Canadiens, who currently sit second in the Eastern Conference wild-card, the Hurricanes are going to need to make up some ground in the second half on not just the Habs, but also the wild-card contending Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders. The good news? Carolina has three games in the offing against those wild-card competitors — two against Buffalo, one against Montreal — and that’s one fast way to overtake the two contenders. The bad? The Hurricanes’ schedule isn’t all that much easier than that of Montreal, Buffalo or New York. No relative freebies is going to mean Carolina has to scratch and claw the rest of the way.
It’s not going to be easy for the Hurricanes to snap their post-season drought, and a rough stretch throughout the month of December put them in a tough spot. Rattling off seven wins in their past eight games has Carolina right back in the conversation, though, and if the goaltending can hold and we see more of the same Hurricanes team that took it to the Predators Sunday night, maybe, finally, this can be the year.