RALEIGH, N.C. -- The decision whether to stick with starting goalie Petr Mrazek or turn to backup Curtis McElhinney might be the most important choice for Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Brind'Amour acknowledged Monday he might make a change in goal for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). With the Hurricanes trailing 2-0 in the best-of-7 series, Brind'Amour will rely heavily on goaltending coach Mike Bales, whose work with Mrazek and McElhinney has been one of the keys to Carolina's success.
"When I took the head coaching job (on May 8, 2018) it was real easy for me to just let him run with the goalies," Brind'Amour said. "I don't even know what he does with them. He takes them, he does his own thing, he has his meetings, and then we talk about who goes in net and he tells me who he thinks should go, and I would say 99 percent of the time this year it's the guy I was going to go with."
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Brind'Amour's trust in Bales is understandable; Bales was in a similar situation with the Pittsburgh Penguins when they used Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury on their way to winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. When the Penguins let Bales go -- in anticipation of Fleury being claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft -- the Hurricanes didn't hesitate to hire him.
"It was less than 24 hours, so it was pretty quick," Bales said. "It's good to know that you're wanted, and Carolina stepped up right away and they were interested. I knew there was a good young team here and there was potential here. I was happy that it worked out."
This series against the Bruins has been reminder for Bales of where he came from. Boston selected him with the fifth-round pick (No. 105) in the 1990 NHL Draft. He made his NHL debut against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 9, 1993. That relief appearance in a 6-2 loss was Bales' only game with the Bruins. He played 22 NHL games from 1994-95 to 1996-97 with the Ottawa Senators before bouncing around in the American Hockey League, International Hockey League and Europe. He ended his playing career with the Straubing Tigers in Germany in 2009-10.
"It feels like a thousand years ago now," Bales said.
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Bales has found a second career as a coach. The 47-year-old started out as development coach and scout with the Penguins in 2011 before being promoted to goaltending coach in 2013. Bales was instrumental in helping Fleury rediscover his game after his struggles in the 2012 and 2013 playoffs threatened to derail his career.
Mrazek was well aware of Bales' work with Fleury before he signed with a one-year contract with the Hurricanes as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2018. The 27-year-old was looking to re-establish himself as a No. 1 goalie after a tough 2017-18 season with the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers when he went a combined 14-13-6 with a 3.03 goals-against average, a .902 save percentage and four shutouts.
"I was super excited to work with him," Mrazek said. "I didn't know Mike before. I heard a lot about him before. We all know he was in Pittsburgh with Marc-Andre Fleury."
With a few minor adjustments, Mrazek showed dramatic improvement under Bales' tutelage; he went 23-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA, .914 save percentage and four shutouts in 40 regular-season games.
"A couple things how he plays off his posts and being a little bit more patient on his feet and a little more patient with his reads and stuff, especially off of line rushes," Bales said. "I think having Curtis McElhinney here has actually helped him a lot because Curtis is really good about those things and sometimes being able to see somebody daily sort of helps the other goaltender at times too."
Bales called it a "no-brainer" to claim McElhinney, a 35-year-old with his seventh NHL team, off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 2 after Scott Darling injured his hamstring during the preseason. Because of McElhinney's experience, Bales didn't try to change anything about him technically, which McElhinney appreciated.
"I think Mike's biggest thing with me is he's been willing to work with me and not try to force anything on me," McElhinney said.
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McElhinney proved to be perfect complement to Mrazek, going 20-11-2 with a 2.58 GAA, .912 save percentage and two shutouts. When Mrazek sustained a lower-body in Game 2 of the second round against the New York Islanders, the transition to McElhinney was seamless. The Hurricanes completed a four-game sweep of the Islanders with McElhinney saving 99 of 108 shots.
"Curtis is a very calm, cool, collected guy, which would be sort of the opposite sometimes when you watch Petr play," Bales said. "Petr's very emotional and wears all that on his sleeve, which is fine. Curtis is also a real competitive guy. He just doesn't display it like that."
After Mrazek allowed 10 goals on 52 shots in the first two games against the Bruins, who have acknowledged they're trying to take advantage of Mrazek's aggressiveness, maybe switching to the more patient, positionally-sound McElhinney would make sense for Game 3.
Brind'Amour wasn't willing to discuss Monday what Bales had to say on the subject.
"Yeah, we've had a conversation already about what we're going to do," Brind'Amour said. "We haven't finalized anything, but we certainly discussed the options."
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