It had been two months since Petr Mrazek’s season was put on hold after his thumb was broken just a few minutes into the first period of a January 30th game against the Dallas Stars.
It was an unfortunate bit of friendly-fire as Max McCormick had crashed hard into the net after going down to try and prevent a 2-on-1. That pass never made it across and Mrazek’s thumb took the full force of McCormick.
The real shame too was that Mrazek had been playing some tremendous hockey. In his three starts, he had picked up two shutouts and posted a 0.955 save percentage and 0.99 goals against average.
Despite the loss, the Canes have remained one of the league’s top teams thanks to the strong tandem performance in their crease by James Reimer (13-4-1; 0.907; 2.70) and March’s Rookie of the Month Alex Nedeljkovic (8-3-2; 0.927; 2.05).
But Thursday evening presented a welcoming sign that the Hurricanes’ number one netminder’s return to the lineup may be just around the corner.
As the Hurricanes were already in Chicago for the second match of a two-game series, it made perfect sense to get Mrazek to the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, for a bit of live game action.
Mrazek then put together a 43-save performance to help carry the Wolves to a 5-2 win over an old team of his, the Grand Rapid Griffins.
“I don’t think there’s anything better than facing 45 shots,” Mrazek said. “That’s a good conditioning game. I’m happy I could face 45 shots. It’s better than just standing there and just waiting for every 5-10 minutes.”
Rod Brind’Amour had been vocal about how the only timetable for Mrazek’s return as of late had been waiting for the Czech netminder to give the green light for himself.
Mrazek said that Don Waddell and Hurricanes’ goalie coach Paul Schonfelder had talked to him about it last weekend that if his hand was feeling ready by Thursday, then he would get a game in with the Wolves.
“I think the first two practices on Tuesday and Wednesday were the first two practice where I felt real confident with it,” Mrazek said. “That was the key that I could play today.”
Even despite it being at the AHL level, Mrazek looked poised and in control as an NHL-caliber goaltender should.
He was tested in many different ways: 2-on-1, breakaway, five power plays against and a flurry of shots with 23 in just the second period alone.
The heightened sense of tracking that Mrazek was exhibiting at the start of this season was put on display though as he played large in his net — knocking away with multiple different parts of his body — and battled through a tremendous amount of traffic all game and seemed nimble and quick throughout the crease.
“He was really good,” said Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky after the game. “I thought he was fighting through traffic, which is something that [Wolves goalie coach Jason Muzzatti] was interested to see. It’s just hard to emulate in practice, five guys in front of you or six guys in front of you. He did a really good job fighting through traffic. I thought his puck touches were good with playing the puck. He looked confident. The first goal, you can’t fault him on it. It was a rebound that goes right to the guy’s stick. The second one, I don’t think you can do much on either. He was really good tonight. He looked sharp.”
His glove was active all evening, as was his stick in breaking up passes and blocking shots seemingly showing no signs of discomfort or hesitation at all.
“They were coming from everywhere,” Mrazek said about all the shots he faced. “I felt pretty tired after the second, but I think I recovered really well.
After such a long pause, it was good for Mrazek to get back the feel for live game action. Feeling out the situations and predicaments that just can’t be replicated in practices.
“Playing the game and knowing how it feels around the net when a guy crashes the net, it’s a huge chance to try,” Mrazek said. “It’s been a long road to this point. I’m happy I could go and try it and see how it is. If it felt ready or not.”
It’s safe to say that Mrazek has been itching to get back into action with his Carolina Hurricanes teammates, but there is also something else he is especially looking forward to.
“I miss the fans so much.”
Mrazek may just have a chance to get back in front of some of those fans as the Hurricanes will be returning to Raleigh for an eight-game homestand after their game Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
*Editor’s Note: Article had previously misnoted which hand the injured thumb was on.