When the Carolina Hurricanes complete this season, no matter the outcome there will be certain games that players and fans look back upon as turning points or touchstones. Saturday night will undoubtedly be one of those games.
A game that featured a quick start for Carolina, settled into an uninspiring first two periods, only to be rescued by heroics in net from Petr Mrazek.
The Great - Mrazek Says No
On a night in which a tired team playing a back-to-back in front of him did less than their part to win a hockey game, Mrazek stood tall after allowing a questionable short-side goal to open the Panthers scoring in the first period. A rested Panthers team clearly had the fresher legs as the night wore on, but Mrazek made every save he needed to give his mates a chance to hang in. His aggressiveness in net is clearly a result of the great confidence that both he and his netminding mate Curtis McElhinney are each playing with. He consistently challenges shooters, which led to save such as his stick save on Jamie McGinn in the second period of a tied game, as well as his stoning of Evgenii Dadonov on a breakaway midway through the third period.
Mrazek saved his true heroics for overtime however, as he unleashed a series of saves that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. First, he denied a clean chance from Vincent Trochek just seconds into OT. Then, a Mike Matheson breakaway was broken up with the noted aggressiveness from Mrazek, as he executed a sprawling poke check to perfection, only to have a Canes turnover lead to another breakaway from Jonathan Huberdeau that was denied.
Unbelievable finish in Florida. Petr Mrazek comes up with two unreal plays. Sebastian Aho wins it. WOW. pic.twitter.com/tU7HnxqPhu— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) March 3, 2019
It was a sequence unlike any other from a Canes goalie in recent memory. As Nino Neiderreiter and Sebastian Aho put the finishing touches on an improbable victory on the other end, Mrazek showed the type of emotion that comes from executing a near out-of-body experience in net at a most crucial time.
It has been said for much of the season that the stat line for Mrazek didn’t necessarily reflect the type of play that he has produced this year. Never has that been more on display than on Saturday night. Yes, there was one goal he wished he had back. But there were more than a half dozen impeccable saves that gave his team a chance to win time and again. That is the mark of a quality goaltender.
The Bad - Heavy Legs
Despite opening with a quick burst of two goals in just over two minutes against a netminder making his NHL debut, the Canes attack was pretty much a counter attack the entire night. The Canes defense spent a lot of time removing the puck from the Carolina zone as the Panthers talented forwards buzzed around Mrazek for much of the night. Obviously, at this juncture in the season, being the team finishing a back-to-back on the road against a home team with fresh legs is a serious factor. But nevertheless, the Canes were simply outplayed for the better part of basically all three periods and overtime.
The sequence that led to the Panthers’ only lead of the night was perhaps the most emblematic of the action on Saturday, as Florida pushed the puck deep into the Carolina zone, where Jamie McGinn forced Trevor van Riemsdyk off the puck and fed Henrik Borgstrom in front to put the Panthers on top.
Obviously, this is not the type of game that the Canes want to play in the long run. That is the message Rod Brind’Amour was sending his team throughout, and the players likely recognize this as well. Despite that, the overriding takeaway is that a team without its legs and without its best game went on the road and clawed away two points from a desperate team.
The Canes found themselves trailing for the first time in the third period, but less than three minutes after the Borgstrom goal, the Canes received some offense in front of the net from an unlikely source. A deflected shot pass from Jordan Staal ended up in the hand of a net-charging Brett Pesce. Pesce flashed some skill as he slapped the puck down and lifted a backhand past Samuel Montembeault in net to even the score again.
Brett Pesce chips home the game-tying goal and let out one of the loudest "Woooooo"'s of all time. 3-3 game in Florida. pic.twitter.com/oB3pulILMK— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) March 3, 2019
The timing for the offense from Pesce could not have been better, but it underscores what the Canes have been doing for more than two months running. They continue to get what they need, when they need it. The same could be said for the game-winning goal in OT. While Niederreiter and Aho are certainly known entities in terms of offensive production, the Canes skaters did not even touch the puck in OT until 1:23 had passed in three-on-three action. But once the Canes got their chance, the tandem converted on the two-on-one. Seizing the opportunity, no matter how lopsided the opportunities are in the other teams favor, is a great calling card for a team. The Canes continue to suggest that it is something that they possess.
Moral of the Story
The Canes garnered a much needed two points on the road. It was a productive day in the standings as the Blue Jackets faltered at home, and the Penguins downed the Canadiens in regulation. But there is no time for a let up in the hyper-competitive Eastern Conference playoff race. The Canes now sit just three points away from the summit of the Metropolitan Division standings, but also potentially three points ahead of missing the playoffs entirely. Every game in the final 17 will be crucial, so there is no time to celebrate too much. The Canes will be back at it with a tough matchup in Boston on Tuesday night.