The Carolina Hurricanes have been a fun team this year, even if they are all just a bunch of jerks. And nobody is having as much fun as Petr Mrazek, who simply can’t be beat right now.
With his 38-save shutout against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, Mrazek has won his past six starts, a streak that began midway through February. His fourth shutout of the year was nothing short of incredible. These are the types of game-stealing victories he has been capable of in his career, and in a season full of ups and down, Mrazek has given the Hurricanes some life between the pipes.
Mrazek was seen as a reclamation project of sorts when he joined the Hurricanes last summer. Once regarded as a top young goaltending prospect with the Detroit Red Wings, Mrazek wasn't able to steal the starting job away from Jimmy Howard and was traded to Philadelphia last season for two conditional draft picks, where he went on to finish with a 6-6-3 record in 17 games. As a result, he wasn't tendered a qualifying offer by the Flyers (who, of course, have used eight goalies this season).
But on a low-risk, high-reward deal with Carolina, Mrazek has played some of his best hockey to date, sporting an 18-12-3 record and doing a nice job of taking over the starting role for the Hurricanes, likely playing well enough to have set a new career high for wins had he not missed time due to injury. He has had help in the crease, too, as journeyman backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney has also stepped up when called upon. The Hurricanes pay just $2.35 million for the pair of Mrazek and McElhinney, giving them the best value between the pipes of any team in the league.
It didn’t look like Mrazek was going to be the go-to guy for Carolina, though. Scott Darling was expected to be the starting goalie, but that was before a pre-season injury and inconsistent play resulted in his demotion to the AHL's Charlotte Checkers. Mrazek’s play at the start of the season made the decision easy: the Hurricanes needed him to be their guy if they wanted to make the playoffs. And with the wild-card battle starting to heat up, it appears as though he was the right choice. During his current six-game run, Mrazek has shut out Dallas and Colorado, two teams vying for a post-season spot in the Western Conference and with a lot to lose late in the year.
Though not as tight as the Western Conference, the wild-card race in the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be a thriller. The Hurricanes sit in the first wild-card spot with 83 points, with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens breathing down their neck with 81 points apiece. Carolina still has to deal with Columbus, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Washington and Toronto before the season ends, though, so nothing about the stretch run will be easy for them, not with one of the toughest remaining schedules of any team still in the hunt.
But that’s why Mrazek’s run is so important. He’s getting hot when it matters most. He can’t peak too early, though. His run has been one of the biggest reasons why the Hurricanes overcame a mid-season slump to become a true wild-card contender, winning 12 of the 17 games he has played since Jan. 1, and if it wasn't for the combined efforts of Mrazek, Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter, the Hurricanes wouldn’t be in this situation right now.
The wild-card race will be a true dogfight going forward, and if the Hurricanes are going to make the playoffs, they need Mrazek to remain razor-sharp down the stretch. He has shown flashes of brilliance during his career, and right now, he's as hot as any goalie in the league. If Carolina is going to be a serious contender, they'll need Mrazek to be near perfect in some of the toughest matchups he has had to deal with all season.
No pressure or anything.