Weeks ago, I went against my instincts, and what years of facts had told me, to buy in with the Carolina Hurricanes. What I couldn’t have predicted was that they would be so desperate to return to their nature, like some leaden blanky.
The reason for enhanced optimism for the Canes this time around is that it seemed they had finally found their goalie. No longer content to try and rehab something they found at the scrapyard, such as James Reimer or Petr Mrázekin the past, but their groomed and developed Alex Nedeljkovic had taken over the job and played so well that he earned a Calder Trophy finalist spot (not that he has any chance of winning it). A .932 save-percentage and a 9.6 goals saved above expected (6th best in the league) seemed to have locked down the position for Carolina for the first time since Cam Ward was guiding them to a Cup in 2006.
Nedeljkovic’s performance in the playoffs hasn’t really dropped all that much. He navigated the Canes through four straight overtime games against the Predators, put up a .920 save-percentage, though his goals saved above expected has basically been neutral. He only gave up four goals in the opening two games against the decidedly weaponized Lightning, but the Canes lost both because of the small problem of Andrei Vasilevskiy in the other net. Happens to just about everyone.
Still, in his first playoff run and the Canes down 2-0, coach/chiseled Adonis Rod Brind’Amour decided to give Nedeljkovic a break in Game 3, if maybe only for the mental rest. It is not a customary decision, but one you could see, given all the challenges this season has thrown at every player. So in came Mrázekfrom the cold.
And it worked. The Canes took Game 3 in overtime 3-2, and Mrázek made 35 saves. Brind’Amour won his bet, and the chance to return Nedeljlkovic to the net without so much pressure was clear. After all, there’s a reason he took the job from an injured Mrázek in the first place, and Nedeljkovic wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list of reasons the Canes were down in the series.
But these are the Canes, and they can’t run from who they are. Which means they’re just continually blind to the fact that Petr Mrázek will never outrun his Petr Mrázek-ness. Especially when he’s played one game in a month.
Brind’Amour doubled down on his bet, returned Mrázek to the crease in Game 4 yesterday, and felt the scorching wind of a smorgasbord of pucks going by him as his wager went up in flames. In a game where Vasilevskiy was apparently lost at the zoo, and gave up four goals on 11 second period shots, Mrázek did him one better by giving up four on 10 in the period.
It’s not that Mrázek was simply a scarecrow in that period, but goalie play in the playoffs is about making some of the saves you shouldn’t make, especially when your counterpart is fighting imaginary butterflies in his own crease. But this isn’t acceptable:
Nikita Kucherov is a former MVP because he can beat goalie clean from the right circle, but this is a save the Canes have to have:
Even after that disaster of a period, the Canes were only down a goal, and with Vasilevskiy struggling on the day, would have felt they had every chance to tie the game in the 3rd. But this is killer. Even though Kucherov does wonderfully to take this slightly awkward pass and get a significant shot on net, it’s in the middle of the goal and through the legs, and really should be just north of a routine save:
From there, up two goals the Lightning could just lock it down, which is what they did. The Canes only has seven shots in the third, and now face a dark, deep pit of a 3-1 deficit against the defending champs. And they lost the game you can’t lose, the one where Vasilevskiy isn’t anywhere near Vasilevskiy levels.
It’s so curious because this isn’t Patrick Roy that the Canes and Brind’Amour went running back to in a game they had to win. In their last non-bubble playoff run of 2019, when the Canes went to the conference final, Mrázek wasn’t any good. He was a main reason it took them the full seven games to dispatch the Capitals, whom they were much better than. He was simply pilfered by the Bruins in the East final. Overall, he put up a .894 save-percentage in 11 starts. Perhaps his bubble-performance last year in five games had convinced Brind’Amour he’s something he’s not, but like any other sport no real conclusions should be drawn from the decidedly odd circumstances of last summer. It’s Petr Mrázek. He has spent his whole career being Petr Mrázek He’s going to be Mrázek.
Nedeljkovic had shown the Canes a different way. And yet they couldn’t help but take the old path. Some traditions end for a reason, Canes.