Backup Goalie Curtis McElhinney Is Hurricanes' Latest Unlikely Hero in Surprising Playoff Run

When backup goalie Curtis McElhinney secured a 2-0 series lead for the Hurricanes' in Game 2 vs. the Islanders, it was a fitting outcome for Carolina's entire playoff run. 
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Among the many occupational quirks baked into the lives of NHL backup goalies, the seating chart might be the strangest. Most rinks have room on their visiting benches—and, to be sure, plenty of room is required given the bulkiness of their gear—but there are exceptions. In Montreal’s Bell Centre, for instance, No. 2 netminders are relocated to the other side of the ice, directly opposite their teammates and coaches. Other arenas require that they watch behind glass, isolated from the action while keeping the Zamboni crew company.

“It’s a little odd,” Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney says. “There’s a little bit of a disconnect.”

And so it was that McElhinney stepped through the entrance tunnel at Barclays Center on Sunday afternoon, past the television cameramen and black-shirted security guards, not on a white horse but off a folding chair. Summoned in the second period against the Islanders to replace injured starter Petr Mrazek, the 35-year-old journeyman glided to the far net and never missed a beat. Perfect on 17 saves, McElhinney lifted Carolina to a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead, becoming the third-oldest goalie ever to earn his first playoff victory in the process.

“He’s thrown into a playoff game like that out of the blue, he hasn’t played in 22 days, and he goes in there, cool as a cucumber,” goaltending coach Mike Bales says. “He’s been such a calming influence on our group. Guys feed off that.”

In a way, McElhinney reflects Carolina’s entire run this postseason. “Next man up” is a tired hockey cliché, cut from the same banal cloth as “one shift at a time” and “get pucks deep.” But the Hurricanes finished Game 2 without six lineup regulars, half of whom went down over the previous 60 minutes: Mrazek, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and winger Saku Mäenalanen. “We’re dropping like flies,” coach Rod Brind’Amour says. Then again, absent the services of dynamic rookie Andrei Svechnikov and top-six grinder Micheal Ferland for against Washington in the first round, the Canes ousted the defending champs in seven games anyway.

No stars. Just a collection of parts that continues to ridiculously overachieve its expected sum.

The latest hero was McElhinney, a laidback soul who was spotted crushing a slice of pizza in the locker room at intermission before overtime of Game 1. At practice, Bales reports, it isn’t uncommon for McElhinney to dip into his bag of retro tricks, performing two-pad stacks or skate saves to mess with teammates. “They’re pretty opposite, our goalies,” captain Justin Williams says of Mrazek and McElhinney, who started 40 and 33 games this season, respectively. “One’s fiery and energetic. The other is calm, cool, collected and a little stoic at times.”

Both personalities were laid bare when Mrazek came up lame and skated to the bench for a quick consultation during a dry scrape, slamming his stick twice in anger before departing down the tunnel. McElhinney was quickly tested upon entry, denying defenseman Devon Toews’ rush chance and stopping center Valtteri Filppula in tight, blocker side. “He’s a read-the-stick guy,” Williams says. “I’m not going to pretend I know anything about goaltending, but it seems like he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older, because he just reads how shots come off sticks. Very calming. Are you surprised? I’m not.”

McElhinney had plenty of help, most notably from a crossbar and two posts that pinged away several prime Islanders chances. But it was remarkable work for someone who had been largely idle—aside from practices early in the playoffs and optional skates with extras—over the past three weeks. And for someone whose previous two postseason appearances, spaced a full decade apart, both came via mop-up relief duty amid blowout losses with Calgary and Toronto. And for someone who joined Carolina as a waiver claim on Oct. 2, then spent the next several months in a hotel without his wife and family, waiting for his long-term fate to be decided.

“Been a crazy year,” McElhinney says. “Never know where you’re going to be.”

The offense came in a sudden burst, 48 seconds apart to start the third period. Warren Foegele, one of many unlikely heroes against the Capitals, wired a perfect wrister past goalie Robin Lehner’s blocker pad, followed by a nifty tip from former Islanders draft pick Nino Niederreiter. “Exactly just like our game plan from the other one,” Williams says. “Stay patient, keep shooting the puck, might get a bounce. Can’t get off your game. Once you get off your game against the Islanders, turn it over, they’ll manufacture stuff and come back the other way.”

Patience is how the Hurricanes have surged this far in their first playoff berth since ‘08-09, a comfortable yet unsettling style that frustrates opponents with their pesky ability to hang around. (Bunch of Jerks, indeed.) But a massive opportunity looms on the horizon. A win on Wednesday at PNC Arena would put Carolina within striking distance of the Eastern Conference final, an unimaginable thought when the season—or, even, the playoffs—began. Under coach Barry Trotz, the Isles are too structured and detailed of an outfit to fold this fast. But the Hurricanes hammered the Capitals all three times in Raleigh. How much further can they go?

“We just came to get one and stole two,” says Williams, who atoned for a sloppy giveaway with a sprawling block at the goal line in the third period, preserving the lead. “Now you want to put a stranglehold on them right? Hopefully we can do that in this series. That’s not the end, but that’s putting your foot on someone’s throat. We need to do that.”

And does Williams believe the Hurricanes possess that type of killer instinct?

“I don't see why not,” he said, striding into the carport and boarding the team bus for Game 3.