By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
If we’re talking about talent and talent alone, the Hurricanes should not be here in the Eastern Conference finals.
They just shouldn’t. Give’m some truth serum and even they would admit that. But they are indeed here, and a lot of that comes back to first-year head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s undeniable know-how when it comes to his team. For 82 games and eight postseason victories, Brind’Amour has pushed all the right buttons with this roster.
But a failure to adapt could accelerate an expected third-round exit for Brind’Amour’s overachieving club — and fast.
Just take a look at Carolina’s 6-2 loss in Game 2, a loss that got progressively uglier than the score would indicate, as hard as that may be to imagine, as the most glaring example of this.
With the Hurricanes down a pair of goals through 20 minutes of play — and with starter Petr Mrazek clearly fighting the puck — it was on Boston’s second shot of the middle frame that Connor Clifton beat Mrazek to give Boston a 3-0 lead. Clifton’s goal came off a plain nightmarish defensive-zone sequence for the ‘Canes, and as Mrazek swam his way out of the net entirely, making Cliffy Hockey’s first career goal entirely too easy.
It was the perfect time for Brind’Amour to make a move to get his group refocused on the game at hand, with the game just 23 minutes and change old, and with the Hurricanes putting pressure on Boston’s defense (though without results) to that point. A simple breather could have allowed the ‘Canes to get their legs under them.
But Brind’Amour did not yank Mrazek in favor of Curtis McElhinney.
Nor did he call timeout to calm his team down.
Instead, he just sat there and let the Bruins ride their wave, and the Black and Gold piled on Mrazek for three more goals before Carolina got some pity-styled goals to make this game seem a lot closer than it really ever was.
It was as puzzling a decision we’ve seen this postseason, and certainly worth a second- or third-guessing after the loss.
“We talked about [pulling Mrazek],” Brind’Amour said after the loss. “But he doesn’t want to come out, he is a battler. A lot of other guys on the bench deserve to come out if that’s how we are doing it so it’s not how we do it. Like I said the only one I thought he’d love to have back was that first one and he will tell you that. I haven’t even talked to him but I know that. If I let him off the hook, I have to let everyone off the hook. If he wants to battle it out, then that’s how we need to go about it.
“I mean how many games have we even — maybe one other one that I can remember that was even remotely like this so — at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to come out and he has earned that right from me to stay in there. And it wasn’t his fault, the way the game was. So we got to regroup and that’s all you can do.”
It’s a sound theory, and is tune with Brind’Amour’s regular-season decisions, as he did not pull a struggling netminder at any point during the 2018-19 season unless it was due to injury. (Mrazek experienced that kind of exit as a lower-body injury knocked him out of Game 2 in the team’s second-round sweep against the Islanders.)
But applying regular-season logic to postseason decisions is often a big fat failure. Just ask Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, who stopped his almost constant in-game line-shuffling when the postseason hit, about that exact philosophy.
This is the third round. Your team is four wins away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup since 2006. Understanding the opportunity in front of you — and doing whatever you can to maximize your ability to seize that opportunity amid an undeniable Cinderella run — is more important than anybody’s desire to battle or work their way out of a funk.
It has to be.
And not for nothing, but you could make the case that Mrazek should not have even been in net for this absolute pummeling.
Blasted for four goals on 27 shots in Game 1, Mrazek’s stat-line now “boasts” 10 goals on 52 shots, good for an .808 save percentage. All while Curtis McElhinney and his playoff-leading .947 save percentage has sat comfortably on the bench. Now, maybe McElhinney would not have been the answer in a 3-0 game (all signs point to no on that front), but to do nothing was shocking, especially given his status as a recently retired veteran of nearly 1,500 NHL games and somebody who certainly should understand the importance of a key in-game adjustment or timeout.
It’s also put the Hurricanes in one hell of a spot entering Game 3.
Battler or not, there’s almost no way Brind’Amour can go back to Mrazek for Game 3. There’s too much on the line to bank on him getting his game back on track, and the Bruins have clearly taken advantage of Mrazek’s aggressiveness and used it to make him straight-up foolish, much to the chagrin of a suddenly-terrible Carolina defense. So if it’s indeed McElhinney time, Brind’Amour has been left to simply hope that the decision not to expose him to the Bruins in Game 2 pays off and that the veteran journeyman continues to chug along when he did for three straight wins in round two.
It’s one gigantic hope, and if it goes unrewarded by way of yet another Boston victory, there’s no doubt that we’ll circle back to the 3:46 mark of the second period in Game 2 as the moment it all slipped away for the rookie head coach.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.