CHICAGO - The circumstances were serendipitous.
Petr Mrazek had not played a competitive hockey game in more than eight weeks. The Carolina Hurricanes were in Chicago for a two-game set against the Blackhawks. The Chicago Wolves, the Canes' American Hockey League affiliate, were playing a Thursday afternoon game just up the road.
It was the perfect set-up for Mrazek to make a conditioning start and feel out his surgically repaired right thumb in a game before returning to the crease for the Canes.
So, Mrazek and forward Max McCormick packed their bags to depart the team hotel in Chicago on Thursday morning. While still observing all league travel protocols, Assistant General Manager Darren Yorke played the role of hockey dad and drove his "sons" Petr and Max an hour northwest to the Triphahn Community Center & Ice Arena, the Wolves' practice facility where they are playing home games without fans this season.
Starting his first game since Jan. 30 and making his first AHL appearance since March 6, 2015, when he was a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins, Mrazek made 43 saves on 45 shots and earned first star honors in a 5-2 Wolves win against his old team.
"It's always good to get back and have a game under your belt," he said later Thursday night at United Center. "Any game action is way better than practice. It was fun."
Just as perfect as the circumstances that allowed Mrazek to make the AHL start in the first place was the conditioning itself - it was a busy afternoon for Mrazek, who made 23 saves on 23 shots in the second period alone, what Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky said "might have been the worst period of the season" for his club.
But for Mrazek, seeing shots in volume was exactly what the doctor ordered.
"It was a good test," he said. "A lot of shots. It's better to have more than less, especially after two months."
"He played really big for them in the second period. I thought he looked really calm," Canes goaltending coach Paul Schonfelder said. "He was good in traffic and controlled his movements well. It was a good game for him to come back and play."
Game action also presented Mrazek with a feel for seeing shots through traffic and battling through pressure in and around the crease, something that's tough to replicate in a practice setting.
"There are certain things you can't do in practice for a goalie: traffic, net drives, stuff behind the net and certain play reads are things you're only going to get in a game," Schonfelder said. "It was important for him to go down and get those under his belt before his game back for us."
From his perch behind the Wolves' bench, Warsofsky saw confident play from Mrazek.
"He was really good. I thought he was fighting through traffic, which is something Jason Muzzatti, our goalie coach, was interested to see," Warsofsky said in his postgame Zoom availability. "He did a really good job because it's hard to emulate in practice, five guys or six guys in front of you. He did a really good job fighting through traffic, and I thought his puck touches were good playing the puck. He looked confident. He was really good and looked really sharp."
How Mrazek looked in action was just one aspect of the conditioning start. The other is how he felt afterward. Hours later, as he, McCormick and Yorke rejoined the Canes at United Center even before puck drop, the feedback was positive.
"So far, so good. We'll see how it is tomorrow," Mrazek said on Thursday night. "This was a good step going forward. Hopefully it will be good, and I'll be ready to go soon."
On Friday, Mrazek was back on PNC Arena ice taking shots once again, and a return to the crease for the Canes seems to be closer than ever.
"Petr hasn't really said, 'Hey, I'm 100 percent ready to play,' so we'll wait and see. I think he is," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said in his Zoom availability on Friday. "I think that will be day-to-day. We'll monitor it as we go."