Under normal circumstances, Petr Mrazek would have been the story. He and Calgary goalie David Rittich had gone save-for-save all night, with Mrazek coming away with the win.
Instead, the talk was about Andrei Svechnikov’s third-period heroics – his lacrosse-style goal and subsequent power-play tally three minutes later that led to Carolina’s 2-1 victory over Calgary on Oct. 29.
Overlooked in the euphoria of the Svechnikov buzz was that Mrazek had just won his 14th consecutive game at PNC Arena, accomplishing the feat with the same kind of flair that has endeared him to the Hurricanes faithful and positioned him, for the first time in his NHL career, as a true No. 1 goalie.
Fifteen months ago, his career was at a crossroads. After years of sharing Detroit’s crease with Jimmy Howard, Mrazek’s time in Hockeytown ended when he was dealt to the Flyers ahead of the 2018 trade deadline.
His tenure in Detroit – where he was a 2010 fifth-round pick, won an AHL Calder Cup with Grand Rapids in 2013 and quickly rose the ranks to the NHL – was over, and his brief stint in Philadelphia was clearly not a fit. Mrazek entered free agency looking to reset his career, and he made a call to Hurricanes GM Don Waddell: one year, $1.5 million. Let me prove myself. “It was all about getting back on track,” Mrazek said.
When Scott Darling got hurt in last year’s pre-season finale, the Hurricanes claimed Curtis McElhinney off waivers from Toronto for insurance, and Mrazek got the start on opening night. Darling never regained his form, and first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour leaned on the tandem of the fiery Mrazek and stoic McElhinney.
While both goaltenders factored heavily in dragging Carolina out of its decade-long playoff drought and all the way to the Eastern Conference final, it was Mrazek, with his on-ice theatrics and charismatic post-game interviews, who seized the hearts and minds of his teammates and the rejuvenated Canes fans. “He has belief in himself, and that’s something you either have or you don’t,” said Hurricanes TV analyst Tripp Tracy, himself a former goalie. “Some fake it. He has it.”
Mrazek was rewarded with a two-year, $6.25-million deal and the keys to the No. 1 job. “He’s an emotional guy, very competitive,” Brind’Amour said. “And I think it’s great, a great relationship between him and our crowd. They kind of feed off each other, and I think they know he gets going when they’re kind of rooting him on.”
The “Petr! Petr!” chants have become commonplace at PNC Arena, and his sliding fist pump has become a trademark – so much so that his likeness is being used in the logo for this year’s World Junior Championship, which is being held in his hometown of Ostrava, Czech Republic.
“I wish I could go there to support the guys,” said Mrazek, who was named the top goalie at the 2012 WJC ahead of a group that included current Tampa Bay netminder and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. “I love the World Junior Championship. It’s one of the best tournaments for junior players. I’m happy it can be in my hometown.”
While he can’t be in Ostrava for the world juniors this winter, he has a bit of his hometown with him in Raleigh. Mrazek’s girlfriend, professional beach volleyball player Sara Olivova, is also a native of Ostrava, though she went to high school in Michigan where they eventually met. “Her mom moved to Detroit, and she was my strength coach back in the days when I was like 14, 15 in Czech,” said Mrazek of Olivova’s mother, Jana Andrys, who has trained several NHL players from the Czech Republic. “I met her mom in Detroit again, and that’s how I met Sara.”
Mrazek, 27, calls Olivova “a warrior” – she just went through a second knee surgery after playing four months with a torn meniscus. “She’s very competitive,” Mrazek said. “She changed me in a lot of ways, how to work hard off the ice.”
They spend their summers in Prague – or whatever beach-lined city Olivova’s career takes them, since much of her season overlaps with hockey’s off-season.
Back in Raleigh this fall, the couple took in 20-year-old Hurricanes rookie Martin Necas, also from the Czech Republic, to help him acclimate to NHL life. “They took care of me,” said Necas, who moved into his own place in late October. “It was unbelievable. I didn’t really have to do anything. I just ate, slept and I was having fun there with them.”
Mrazek even has a hint of empty-nest syndrome. “He was our son for a little bit,” he joked. “Now he’s gone, so we are lonely.”
Luckily for Mrazek, he has 18,000 strong in PNC Arena ready to remind him that he’s not alone. “It doesn’t compare to anything,” he said of his connection to the Hurricanes fans. “It’s something I really enjoy, something special.”
And it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked for Carolina’s No. 1 netminder.