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Unmasked

Conference finals feature goalies who have bounced back from adversity

Mrazek, McElhinney, Binnington, Rask, Jones redeem selves

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

There are few absolutes when it comes to goalies, who play a position so volatile that the only certainty is often uncertainty. So it shouldn't come as much of a shock that each of the four conference finalists in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has at least one goalie who took a bumpy path to get there. 

The Carolina Hurricanes, who are facing the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, have been boosted by the combination of Petr Mrazek, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract July 1 for the chance to resurrect his career, and Curtis McElhinney, a 35-year-old claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs two days before the Hurricanes opened the season. Mrazek went 23-14-3 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 40 games (all starts); McElhinney went 20-11-2 with a 2.58 GAA and .912 save percentage in 33 games (all starts).

The St. Louis Blues went from last in the NHL on Jan. 2 to the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks partly because of 25-year-old rookie Jordan Binnington. He didn't make his first NHL start until Jan. 7, almost eight years after being selected in the third round (No. 87) of the 2011 NHL Draft, but is a Calder Trophy finalist for NHL rookie of the year despite starting 30 games. He went 24-5-1 with a 1.89 GAA, .927 save percentage and five shutouts.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Blues series coverage | Complete Bruins vs. Hurricanes series coverage]

 

Then there are the veterans whose play seemed to decline during the regular season or early in the playoffs. 

Bruins No. 1 Tuukka Rask is the only Vezina Trophy winner among the remaining playoff goalies, having won it as the NHL's best at the position in 2014. But he had the lowest full-season save percentage (.912) of his 12-season NHL career and a 2.48 GAA, and faced questions going into the playoffs about whether he should even be the starter after being outplayed statistically by backup Jaroslav Halak (2.34 GAA, .922 save percentage).

Video: BOS@CBJ, Gm6: Rask stones Dubois on redirection

Martin Jones, who is trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final with the Sharks for the second time in four seasons, was pulled twice and had a .838 save percentage through Game 4 of the first round against the Vegas Golden Knights. He, too, was coming off an NHL career-worst save percentage (.896) for a full season and faced scrutiny after San Jose fell behind behind 3-1 in that series. 

Though these are compelling stories of goalies overcoming adversity to reach the conference finals, they are really not all that surprising.

Binnington might appear to be a big surprise, but remember, we're three years removed from Matt Murray helping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the first of two Cup championships as a late-season call-up from the American Hockey League. Sure, Murray got there faster, starting his run less than four years after the Penguins chose him in the third round (No. 83) of the 2012 NHL Draft and after spending two seasons in the AHL, compared to Binnington's six seasons in the minors. But goalies sometimes simply take longer to develop, whether it's a function of opportunity, experience, or often just the time it takes to find a goaltending coach or philosophy to tie everything together.

Video: DAL@STL, Gm7: Binnington knocks away Klingberg's try

Mrazek was a fifth-round pick (No. 141) by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2010 NHL Draft, and may be next on the list of biggest perceived surprises after he had an .891 save percentage in 17 games with the Philadelphia Flyers last season following a Feb. 19 trade from Detroit. But Mrazek had a .920 save percentage in 94 games over his first four seasons with the Red Wings, and a .931 save percentage in 10 playoff games over that period, so the raw talent has always been there. 

Video: CAR@NYI, Gm1: Mrazek makes stellar save on Filppula

The problem for Mrazek at times was that he was overly reliant on his skill and speed, and a positional aggressiveness that opponents began to target. Reining that in, but not so much that he lost some of those skill elements that defined him early, took time, but he appears to have found the right balance in Carolina with Mike Bales, who was the goaltending coach in Pittsburgh for Murray's two Cup wins.

McElhinney seems to have shifted slightly the other way, relying more on instinct, and perhaps he and Mrazek each is taking elements from the other and incorporating them into his own game, which is common for goalies in a timeshare. However, it's not as if McElhinney's strong showing after Mrazek was injured in Game 2 of the second round against the New York Islanders came out of nowhere (3-0, 1.56, .947 in three games before Mrazek rerturned for Game 1 against Boston on Thursday). Before Toronto let him go in favor of a younger backup, 25-year-old Garret Sparks, McElhinney had a .934 save percentage in 18 games (15 starts) last season despite averaging almost 12 days between starts. It was a testament to his mental strength and a technically sound style that has evolved over 11 NHL seasons, one that is less reliant on rhythm, timing and regular playing time.

Jones also has a history of success -- he has 30 playoff wins since 2015-16, tied with Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators for second in the NHL in that span -- but goalies are often at the mercy of what goes on in front of them. In Jones' case, seven of the 13 goals he allowed in San Jose's first four playoff games this season came on the rush. But Jones appears to have made an adjustment since then by playing less aggressively, mitigating some of his exposure on movement inefficiencies that were costly earlier this season. He has a .928 save percentage over 10 games since Game 4 against the Golden Knights.

Video: Jones tightens up, leads Sharks to second Game 7 win

Which brings us to Rask, whose save percentage was below his .921 NHL average each of the past four seasons, and who had a .903 percentage last season in the playoffs. Those numbers, combined with Halak's strong play this season, had some wondering if Rask should be Boston's playoff starter. Two rounds later, he has a .938 save percentage, best in the playoffs among goalies who have played at least five games. He made 29 saves on 31 shots in a 5-2 victory against Carolina on Thursday after outplaying two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round.

At a position with so many ups and downs, having to overcome the inevitable downs is one of the few constants, something the goalies still playing in these playoffs know well.

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