It was inevitable that Rod Brind’Amour was going to be asked about the Carolina Hurricanes’ goaltending situation in the aftermath of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final. Starting netminder Petr Mrazek had just allowed six goals against, at least a couple of which were of the burn-the-footage variety. But when quizzed about the coming Game 3 choice between Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, who closed out Carolina’s second-round sweep of the New York Islanders, Brind’Amour wasn’t only non-committal, he didn’t so much as tip his hand in one degree in either direction.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he told reporters. “We still have to let this one digest a little bit and then move forward.”
That’s not to say Brind’Amour’s assessment of Mrazek’s play was all that positive. How it could it have been, though? The Hurricanes keeper was beaten six times on 25 shots, including a game-opening goal by the Bruins’ Matt Grzelcyk that eluded Mrazek and trickled over the line. Brind’Amour called that one “no good,” and the same could have been said for Connor Clifton’s tally, on which Mrazek bit hard enough in one direction that the defenseman had a yawning cage to fire the puck into, and the fourth goal against, Grzelcyk’s second of the game, which saw Mrazek slow to move to his left as he fought against traffic near his crease. Brind’Amour admitted, too, that there was a moment when Carolina’s coaching staff considered giving the netminder the hook.
But that brings us to the present.
With Game 3 on the horizon, the Hurricanes have an all-important decision to make. On one hand, Carolina can go back to Mrazek, who guided the Hurricanes through a seven-game series victory against the defending champion Washington Capitals. On the other, Brind’Amour and Co. can make the switch to McElhinney, who stopped 71 of the 75 shots that came his way in the final two and a half games of Carolina’s defeat of New York. And while there’s an argument to be made for both netminders, there’s seemingly a consensus among those who’ve tuned in to the series: it’s McElhinney’s time to take over.
That’s not without reason, of course. As outlined, McElhinney played incredibly well in relief duty in the second round after Mrazek fell injured. McElhinney earned the decision in each game he appeared, posted a .947 save percentage at all strengths through the 154 minutes he played in the sweep of the Islanders and finished with a rock-solid 1.56 goals-against average. Additionally, his 5-on-5 numbers were exceptional. He posted a .965 SP across nearly 126 minutes, was perfect on high-danger shots against and his goals-saved above average, which is a measure of stops made by a keeper that would have beaten a goaltender with league-average performance, was a full goal per 60 minutes at five-a-side. His are the top marks among any keeper with at least one start this post-season.
So, one can see why there’s support for the change to be made. With Tuesday’s Game 3 as close as it comes to a must-win without the Hurricanes’ season actually being on the line, McElhinney’s numbers support the argument that he can provide Carolina with its best chance to win. And maybe that is indeed the case. Maybe it isn’t. What we do know for certain, though, is that the hole in which the Hurricanes find themselves is due to factors beyond substandard goaltending, and Carolina’s inability to generate much in the way of offense is the biggest.
The Hurricanes have only beaten Tuukka Rask four times in two games, scoring twice in Game 1 and twice in Game 2. Offense in the latter contest was especially hard to come by, too, and the pair of goals Carolina did score came once the game was out of reach. But it’s more than actually finding twine that has been a concern for the Hurricanes, because for an outfit that has been the poster child for process leading to results this season, Carolina’s underlying numbers through two games are ugly.
When adjusted for score and venue, the Hurricanes have a 48.7 Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 to go along with a 47.7 shots percentage, 48.7 scoring chances percentage and 33.5 high-danger chances percentage. Paired with that, as one might expect, is a 34.5 goals for percentage at five-a-side. Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, but the numbers absolutely reflect what’s been seen throughout the opening two games of the Eastern Conference final. In Game 1 and particularly in Game 2, Boston was able to choke off the middle of the ice defensively and force almost everything to the outside. The result is that Carolina, which is light on the kind of sharpshooting talent that has a penchant for turning fringe opportunities into highlight reel tallies, has been rendered ineffective offensively.
How ineffective? Consider that through their first 11 post-season games, the Hurricanes were averaging 30.7 shots, 61.9 shot attempts, 26.2 scoring chances and 12 high-danger chances per 60 minutes at five-a-side. The byproduct was expected goal production of 2.5 tallies per hour at 5-on-5, and Carolina was scoring at an actual clip of 2.9 goals per 60 minutes at five-a-side. Against the Bruins at 5-on-5, however, the Hurricanes have managed 23.3 shots, 42.4 shot attempts, 20.9 scoring chances and 7.4 high-danger chances per 60 minutes. Carolina’s expected goals rate at 5-on-5 across the past two games has thus dipped to 1.5 per 60 minutes, and the Hurricanes’ actual 5-on-5 rate of scoring is 1.8 goals per hour.
It’s the difficulty Carolina has had generating offensive opportunities that makes this two-game series deficit wholly different from the one the Hurricanes faced in the opening round, too. Despite the Capitals holding a 2-0 series lead in Round 1, Carolina was not only dominating the possession percentages at 5-on-5, but producing upwards of 30 shots, 67 shot attempts, 29 scoring chances and nine high-danger chances per 60 minutes. That was something the Hurricanes were able to hang their hats on and build off of entering Game 3, a foundation on which to build and orchestrate a come-from-behind series victory. No such foundation exists through the first two games of the conference final.
And for those wondering, no, the same can’t be said defensively. As far as limiting shots, attempts and chances against at 5-on-5, Carolina’s performance through two games in Round 3 has been largely the same as it was during the first two rounds. The only notable increase is in high-danger chances, an area one would expect a team as responsible in its own end as the Hurricanes to clean up.
That’s not to say there aren’t other elements beyond the goaltending and offensive concerns, however. A toothless power play hasn’t done the Hurricanes any favors, and nothing has swung the balance of the series in the Bruins’ favor quite as much as Carolina’s inability to kill penalties. Allowing two power play goals against in a span of 28 seconds changed the entire complexion of Game 1, which the Hurricanes seemed to have in hand before early third period penalty trouble.
The fact of the matter, though, is that the issues through two games have gone well beyond goaltending. So, yes, Brind’Amour has a difficult decision to make, one that could influence the outcome of Game 3 and help turn the tide ever-so-slightly back in Carolina’s favor. But barring an offensive turnaround and breakthrough by the Hurricanes through the subsequent contests in this series, neither Mrazek or McElhinney will be the answer to what has ailed Carolina early in the Eastern Conference final, particularly if the offense doesn't come to life.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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