Editor’s Note: It’s “Underdog” week at SB Nation, and, here at Canes Country, we’re going to be taking a look back at some of the more memorable underdog players in the team’s history. The Hurricanes have had a number of players who exceeded expectations as a low draft pick, undrafted player, bargain free agent or seemingly minor trade to carve out a role and become a fan favorite. Today, Cody looks back at a crucial, but at the time of his arrival, totally unheralded part of last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
No matter how much an organization tries to plan things out, something will always go wrong in the world of professional sports. Typically, those curve balls can derail an entire season, but every now and then they create an opportunity for something special to happen.
The latter is exactly what happened when Scott Darling, the expected starting goaltender for the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes, was injured during the final preseason game. The Hurricanes had to decide what to do, and quickly as the season was merely days away.
Enter Curtis McElhinney, a well-traveled NHL veteran who had just been waived by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
McElhinney, a 6th-round draft pick in 2002, had been around the NHL since 2007 but he was primarily a backup or AHL starter. Coming off a 2017-18 campaign that saw him play in just 18 games, the Maple Leafs made the decision to waive McElhinney to try and send him to the AHL before the start of the 2018-19 season. That’s when the Hurricanes, who at the time just needed a gap filler until Darling could return, swept in and claimed the 35-year-old.
Nobody, including McElhinney himself, thought he would be in Raleigh playing for the Hurricanes for long. Most assumed he would serve primarily as the backup to Petr Mrazek until Darling returned, and maybe play a few games here and there.
Rod Brind’Amour made the decision to give McElhinney his first start in just the second game of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets and McElhinney never looked back. He won his first three starts and when Darling returned on October 30 it appeared the Hurricanes would have to make a tough decision on McElhinney’s fate.
But just a few days later, Petr Mrazek would suffer a lower body injury,
making room for McElhinney to hang around a little longer as Darling’s backup. As most everyone knows, the Darling experiment failed and McElhinney proceeded to win four straight games from November 18 - November 27 effectively making Darling the odd man out and securing a full time role with the Canes for No. 35.
As the season progressed, Mrazek and McElhinney fed off each other with Mrazek being the fiery in your face type guy and McElhinney being the calming force that just took control of games in a much-less flashy way. McElhinney would have three different sets of four-game win streaks and at one point from December 31 to March 1 he won 10 out of 12 starts with a .926 save percentage.
Combined, the goalie tandem of Mrazek and McElhinney helped lead the Hurricanes back to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years with Mrazek setting himself up as the starter thanks to a great run in March. After the Hurricanes defeated the Washington Capitals in round one, they headed up to New York to face the Islanders in round two. During game two of the series, Mrazek was injured and had to leave the game. McElhinney entered and stopped all 17 shots he faced leading the Hurricanes to victory.
A few days later, Big Mac, as the fans called him, would lead the Hurricanes on the ice for his first ever playoff start. He became the oldest goalie ever to make his first playoff start.
Curtis McElhinney (CAR): 28 saves in his 1st Stanley Cup Playoff start...he’s the oldest goalie at the time of his 1st career Stanley Cup Playoff start (35 years, 343 days) #elias pic.twitter.com/PhgjqAsYvI— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) May 2, 2019
He would go on to win both home games against he Islanders, clinching the series for Carolina but the team made the decision to go back to a returning Mrazek in round three. The Canes lost the first two games before going back to McElhinney for games three and four where the Bruins completed the sweep of the series.
Many questioned the decision to go back to a potentially not-fully healed Mrazek when McElhinney was playing so well during round two. Mrazek, the ever emotional goalie seemed rattled by the Bruins and the calming nature McElhinney provided could have helped make a difference before the series got out of hand.
The story of Curtis McElhinney is an incredible one. He played his way in to a full time job with the Canes and the team doesn’t make the playoff without him. He was even nominated for the Masterton Trophy in 2019 by his fellow teammates.
While his time as a Hurricane was short, as he turned his success in Carolina in to a multi-year deal with the Lightning, McElhinney will forever go down as one of the greatest waiver claims of all time. It was a true underdog story for a guy who went from being unwanted in Toronto, to a playoff hero in Raleigh.