The Hurricanes bounced back from Saturday’s 3-2 loss in fine fashion Sunday night, celebrating Petr Mrazek’s first start since Jan. 30 with a 1-0 shutout win.
The Hurricanes won a physical, “grindy” game thanks to Mrazek’s clean sheet, a big goal from Jordan Martinook and big performance on defense to set them up for a huge pair of games against the Florida Panthers ahead.
Let’s talk about last night:
Mrazek returns, decision time for Canes’ crease
In the Hurricanes’ first handful of games of the season, sandwiched around a 10-day COVID pause, one of the most positive developments was the play of Petr Mrazek, who won two of his first three starts, both shutouts, and appeared capable of providing a major boost with his play in net.
But in his fourth start, against the Dallas Stars, disaster struck. Hurricanes forward Max McCormick collided with Mrazek in the crease, breaking his right thumb, an injury that required surgery. What followed was a long recovery and rehab process, and 66 days later, following a successful conditioning stint in Chicago last week, Mrazek returned to the Hurricanes’ crease.
“It felt good,” Mrazek said. “It’s been a long journey so it’s nice that I could be back in the game
with the guys.”
Mrazek provided the Hurricanes with an excellent performance in his return. Stopping all 28 shots he faced for his third shutout in four complete games this season.
Mrazek admittedly needed some time to settle in through the first period, but his teammates played very well in front of him for the first two periods, limiting Dallas to just two shots, eight scoring chances and one high-danger scoring chances through two (the later two numbers courtesy of naturalstattrick.com).
“They helped me so much around the net,” Mrazek said. “Like I said, the first period I felt like I gave up some rebounds and also at the start of the second period too. They boxed them out really well and cleaned the space right next to me so well.”
In the third period, however, as Dallas turned up the heat down a goal, Mrazek was lights out. He stopped all 12 shots Dallas threw at him and made big save after big save, especially in the last five minutes.
Dallas had six scoring chances in the third period and two high-danger chances, but Mrazek was equal to the task.
“He was pretty good,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “He didn’t have a lot of work for two, and then, when we needed him, he was there in the last five minutes. He made three or more spectacular, especially weird ones that went in that he couldn’t see. They weren’t grade-As, necessarily, but they were coming from angles and screens. He fought through it. He was good, obviously.”
With Mrazek back now, the Hurricanes have a decision to make about their goalie rotation moving forward with three NHL options. Mrazek picked up where he left off, and has a ridiculous three shutouts in four complete starts. Alex Nedeljkovic has played very well over the last month and change, and earned the NHL’s Rookie of the Month honors for March. Nedeljkovic also needs to play six more games in order to avoid becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
That would seem to leave James Reimer as the odd man out, but it seems unlikely the Hurricanes would waive or demote a reliable veteran they like. Don Waddell said in a recent interview with Sara Civian of The Athletic the team could trade one of its three goalies.
Of course, they could simply keep all three as insurance and find a way to divvy up starts. It doesn’t seem to be a decision Brind’Amour’s eager to rush.
“We’re going to take a day here and regroup on it,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s great to know that Petr’s back as far as being sharp and there’s no questions there. He’d been out a long time. The question that’s obviously going to come is what kind of workload do you give him, and he’s got to have a few starts here to really get in the groove of playing every day or that conditioning aspect. So we’ll regroup tomorrow and kind of figure it out.”
Canes answer the bell
The Dallas Stars are known for being a physical team, but, Sunday night, it was the Hurricanes who set the tone physically. Carolina dished out a whopping 54 hits to 35 for Dallas, led by Cedric Paquette with eight.
Carolina knows these physical, grinding games with little to no room to operate are going to become more and more the norm as desperate teams in the Central Division fight for their playoff lives, and the team draws closer and closer to playoff hockey.
That’s fine with them.
“I thought those were two really good games,” Brind’Amour said. “I know we didn’t get the result [Saturday] night, but really I thought that was just as good a game as this one as far as the way we played it. That’s what we’re going to have to do. It gets tough, as we know. Playoff hockey is kind of that way. You’ve got to grind. That certainly was kind of the feel in these two games.”
Skjei settling in
The Hurricanes, despite dominating the Stars for stretches, only found the back of the net once Sunday night, leading them to need a strong game on defense. They got it, with Brind’Amour complimenting the back end for its play.
One blue liner in particular stood out in all three zones. Brady Skjei was superb, leading the Hurricanes with seven shots on goal and generating numerous grade-A chances. He also helped lock down the Stars in his own end, continuing the strong run of play he’s shown in recent weeks.
“He was solid tonight, for sure,” Brind’Amour said. “He could have had a couple goals. He made some great offensive plays tonight. Their goalie played great. You’ve got to him a lot of credit. He held them in it, really, to give them a chance. But [Skjei] was really good tonight, defending, obviously, but he was really good in the offense. He created a lot of opportunities.”
It’s well established that defensemen, particularly offensive defensemen such as Skjei can take a minute to settle into Rod Brind’Amour and the Hurricane’s system, which asks a lot of defensemen. It happened with Dougie Hamilton and Jake Gardiner.
And it happened with Skjei, who certainly had his struggles in his own zone earlier this season. But lately, with his steady play, skating and vision in the offensive zone, it’s looking like Skjei has turned that corner and is settling in, and is showing more and more of the reasons the Hurricanes wanted to go and get him, and were willing to surrender a first-round pick to do so.
“[Skjei]’s a great player,” said Vincent Trocheck. “He can skate. He’s very steady. He’s always in the right positions in the D-zone. He can wheel in the O-zone and find guys, great vision. Our D corps is so good, and he just adds to that depth.”
Martinook’s big goal
Jordan Martinook scored a beautiful goal in the second period, taking a slick feed from Vincent Trocheck, who has recorded at least a point all four of the games he’s played since returning from injury, and 10 straight overall, before sniping a shot past Jake Oettinger on a breakaway.
For Martinook, it snapped a 23-game goal drought and was his first tally since Feb. 13.
“I feel like I’ve been close and kind of fighting it,” Martinook said. “A little frustrated I guess. But I’ve got to give a little bit of credit to my dad because he just said quit gripping your stick so tight and have fun. He’s like, ‘You’ve scored goals before, just go out and shoot.’ So we’ll chalk that one up to Sparky Marky for the assist on that one.”
Martinook’s tally ended up being a big goal for the Hurricanes, as it was the only goal of the game. Going forward, and trending toward the playoffs, the team is going to need those contributions from up and down the lineup, especially with Teuvo Teravainen still on the shelf, and Brock McGinn seemingly likely to miss time after suffering an upper-body injury Sunday.
“That’s how we expect it to go,” Brind’Amour said. “We need contributions from everybody at different times. You’ve got your usual suspects that you rely on more, but we need everyone to contribute some way. Tonight it was him with the goal. [Trocheck] makes a great play on it. There were a lot of really good plays tonight.”
With two games against the Florida Panthers, the team currently occupying the coveted top spot in the Central Division, this week, the Hurricanes are going to need more of those good plays from everyone.