The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Paul MacLean, Don Nachbaur and Gord Murphy will take turns providing insight.
In this edition, Marcoux, former goalie coach for the Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames, discusses the injury to Carolina Hurricanes goalie Peter Mrazek in the Eastern Conference Second Round and how Curtis McElhinney was the right guy at the right time to carry the Hurricanes through to the Eastern Conference Final.
Before the Stanley Cup Playoffs started, we talked about preparing goaltending tandems for the postseason in an edition of Coaches Room.
That preparation has paid off big time for the Carolina Hurricanes.
[RELATED: Bruins host Hurricanes on Thursday in Game 1 of Eastern Conference Final]
When Petr Mrazek sustained a lower-body injury in the second period of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the New York Islanders, backup Curtis McElhinney was launched into the spotlight.
In that game, McElhinney made 17 saves to help Carolina to a 2-1 win. For Game 3, he became the oldest goalie to make his first Stanley Cup Playoff start (35 years, 343 days) and helped the Hurricanes to their sweep of the Islanders by winning the final two games of the series.
The Hurricanes will play the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. Game 1 is in Boston at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS, SN).
It's a credit to Carolina goalie coach Mike Bales, making sure his goalies were ready to go. He's been with Mrazek and McElhinney all season and it was a good partnership, with McElhinney (20-11-2, 2.58 goals-against average, .912 save percentage) pushing Mrazek (23-14-3, 2.39 GAA, .914 save percentage) throughout the season.
Video: Brind'Amour on Carolina's success, team contributions
Mrazek is back practicing with the team and seems healthy to start the next round against the Bruins; all the Hurricanes have had extended rest because of their second-round sweep. The Hurricanes are eight wins from winning the Stanley Cup but having two capable goalies has to be comforting for coach Rod Brind'Amour.
I'm really thrilled for McElhinney, who played 33 games this season, the most he's ever played in an NHL season.
I had the privilege of coaching him in my few years with the Flames. He came up from the American Hockey League as a very mature 24-year-old after being selected by the Flames in the sixth round (No. 176) of the 2002 NHL Draft and I got to know him quite well starting in 2007-08.
Back then, McElhinney (6-foot-2, 203 pounds) often reverted to a quick butterfly that would expose the upper part of the net. He believed he needed to crouch down in a low stance to be quick at the NHL level.
Helped by many video sessions, we would often discuss having a more upright stance and a bigger presence in net. This stance modification would challenge the shooters and not allow them to go for the easy openings above his shoulders. It also allowed him be more patient and better read the release of a shot and react much better by not reverting too quickly to the butterfly save.
As his career moved on, I met up with him in Columbus one season and I remember him saying to me that he was too young and dumb to understand what we were talking about early in his career but that he got it now. He learned how to slow the game down and read it way better because he was more quiet in the net, more positionally sound and more upright. It makes him bigger in the net, and more effective.
Video: McElhinney earns first career playoff series win
McElhinney's level of perseverance and commitment has always impressed me. And he's been a classy guy, too. I remember the day the Flames sent him back to the American Hockey League when Curtis Joseph was brought in and that handshake the two goalies had, crossing paths, when Joseph told him, "Hey man, I'm sorry about this and I realize I'm taking your spot but keep your head up and stay with it." It's clear McElhinney took that to heart.
When McElhinney was claimed on waivers by the Hurricanes from the Maple Leafs on Oct. 2, 2018, and having worked in Carolina with Brind'Amour, I sent Brind'Amour a text congratulating them on that move, that they were getting a true pro.
I also noticed in the second round, when the Hurricanes had to make the switch, Brind'Amour said he leaves the goalie decisions to Bales.
That doesn't surprise me.
Every team has a goalie union within the team. A coach sees the big picture and makes the decisions but must trust the people around him. But often, the coach and the other assistants are not privy to some of the conversation and information that's exchanged between a goalie and his goalie coach.
One of those things with me was sleep. It was often my question to the goalies every morning. It was a starting point to many conversations. It would tell me how much activity to put into a day.
The smart organizations trust the people who are heavily involved with their goalies, which is the goalie coach.
Video: McElhinney's amazing saves, Benn sets up Hintz
When I was in Carolina, coach Bill Peters was like that. We would have many debates, including on the plane. Bill would ask all the assistants, for example, "Who would be your goalie tomorrow?" As the goalie coach, you can't always go with the flow. Most of the time you're on the same page. But at times, you have to speak your mind and maybe bring a different opinion because you may have information that the other coaches don't have due to a conversation or an assessment that you made as a goalie coach.
Fatigue and injuries are part of the playoffs.
For the Hurricanes, thankfully they have a steady and reliable guy in McElhinney. His calm, collected disposition has helped them. It wasn't an easy situation to go into but having the right people and the right preparation is making a difference.