It was a night nobody will soon forget. February 22, 2020. Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs. James Reimer went down with a lower-body injury in the opening minutes. In the second period, his replacement, Petr Mrazek, was hit by Kyle Clifford and knocked out of the game, later sidelined more than two weeks with a concussion. In came emergency backup David Ayres. The rest is history.
It was the feel-good story of the season for the Hurricanes and for the league as whole, but the impact below the surface were very real. Carolina had lost both of its NHL goaltenders just days before the trade deadline. And Carolina GM Don Waddell didn't make a move to bring in anyone new. Instead, the Hurricanes rode on the shoulders of Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg, asking both to fill in in the short-term. It was a struggle, the Canes going 2-3-1 in the six games without their top tandem. But with Mrazek expected to return Tuesday, it's time for the Czech netminder to prove he's ready for another trip to the post-season.
The Canes currently sit in the final wild-card spot with 79 points, with the New York Islanders (79) and Florida Panthers (78) breathing down Carolina's neck. A 9-1-0 record in their past 10 games has shot the Philadelphia Flyers into contention for the Metropolitan Division lead, and the Hurricanes haven't been able to keep up. However, with Mrazek returning and Reimer expected to backup sooner rather than later, it's back to status quo in the crease – but status quo needs to be far better than average going forward, especially as it pertains Mrazek, who has been the team's No. 1 goaltender.
Mrazek has had a rocky 2019-20 season, posting a 20-16-2 record through 39 contests, a step down from his 23-14-3 record in 40 games last season. Among goalies with at least 25 games played, Mrazek's save percentage at 5-on-5 is good for 44th of 54 qualified goaltenders (.914) and his goals-saved above average places him two positions higher in 42nd (minus-4.68). Those are mid-pack numbers for a goaltender who went 13-4-0 after Feb. 1 last year, a record he'll need to replicate as the games become even more important down the stretch. During that hot run to close last campaign, Mrazek was one of the league's top goalies, posting a .947 SP (third among goalies with at least 10 games played) and a 10.15 GSAA (fifth) at 5-on-5. His high-danger save percentage of .949 was first, with Ben Bishop (.940) the only other goalie above .900. If you looked up the term "clutch" in the dictionary last spring, Mrazek's performance was front-and-center in the entry.
But this season, inconsistency has been the theme of Mrazek's game. Following a 7-1-1 record to kick off the season, Mrazek hasn't won more than three games in a row since Nov. 19 and has a subpar 10-13-1 record in his past 25 games. In 13 games since Jan. 1, his record is even more dismal. He's 4-8-0, one of the worst marks goalies with at least 10 games played. Granted, the Hurricanes haven't played well enough in front of Mrazek, but Reimer's 6-0-2 record looks incredible in comparison.
Mrazek did have a bit more help defensively last year, but marginally: he averaged 27.2 shots against per game at 5-on-5 from February onwards, as opposed to 28.2 this season. The Canes have allowed the ninth fewest goals against this season (191), but Carolina is also 15th in goals for (212). The Hurricanes aren't a high-scoring team, instead relying on the team's backend to win games. It has worked for the most part and kept Carolina in the hunt, but Mrazek needs to be better down the stretch to ensure a post-season return for the Hurricanes. His .830 HDSP at 5-on-5 this season makes him a mid-pack goaltender, 29th among the 54 goaltenders, so while he hasn't been terrible, he hasn't stood on his head and changed games to the degree he did last season.
The Hurricanes need Mrazek to prove he's still the No. 1 option. Reimer has been good this season and hasn't lost a regulation game in 2020, but Mrazek is supposed to be The Guy. His time off with his injury provides him with a fresh start down the stretch, and if we've learned anything about his career – whether it be those heroic goaltending performances at the World Junior Championship or the second half of 2018-19 – it's that Mrazek has a penchant for showing up when it matters. On paper, the Hurricanes have a team capable of another long playoff run. In order to get there and prove that's the case, though, they'll need Mrazek to channel his inner warrior again.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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