– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — It is almost certain that the Carolina Hurricanes do not want the Stanley Cup Playoffs to turn into a literal war of attrition, but it appears that each injury incurred by a key member of the team has allowed another player to step and play a integral part in yet another postseason victory.
On Sunday, it was Curtis McElhinney’s turn to play the role of unexpected hero for Carolina.
Coming on in relief of an injured Petr Mrazek in goal, McElhinney stopped all 17 shots he faced — along getting help from three shots that hit the iron — while Warren Foegele and Nino Niederreiter scored 48 seconds part at the beginning of the third period to lift the Hurricanes to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the New York Islanders to take each of the opening two games of the second round series at the Barclays Center.
McElhinney’s star turn could have been expected, as he platooned with Mrazek all season long and both put up similar season statistics in helping to lead the Hurricanes to their first postseason appearance in a decade. Given the situation of coming in cold and not having played a minute of playoff hockey this postseason so far, McElhinney, like a good number of his teammates, turned that adversity into an opportunity to thrive and give the team yet another shot in the arm.
“[McIlhinney] has been great all year, so there was no, like, ‘Oh no, we got to put that guy in,'” said Hurricanes’ head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “This is how this night’s going. We’re dropping like flies, and now your goalie goes down. But I love the fact that we have Mac sitting there ready to rock and roll.”
Already playing without five regulars who have gotten injured during the team’s first eight games of their playoff run so far, the Hurricanes lost defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk in the first 30 seconds of today’s game after being checked hard into the boards by Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck. van Riemsdyk was seen clutching at his upper left arm soon afterward and was declared out with an upper-body injury. Later in the game, forward Saku Maenalanen became the fifth regular during the NHL Playoffs to get injured, as he left the game early in the third period after blocking a shot from Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech.
From playing a man short almost from the outset after van Riemsdyk’s injury, Carolina soon found itself a goal down at 13:17 of the first after a power play goal by the Islanders, scored when a pass by Islanders winger Mathew Barzal deflected off the stick of defenseman Jaccob Slavin and behind Mrazek for New York’s first lead of the series.
Six minutes had elapsed in the second period when Mrazek, while sliding across his crease to track a centering pass, favored his right leg before skating to the bench during a media timeout and escorting himself out of the game, forcing McElhinney into his third career playoff game. His two other appearances, in 2009 with Calgary and last season with Toronto, came when he relieved goaltenders who were pulled for ineffective play.
McElhinney’s play was far from ineffective.
“We just gutted it out,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re losing guys and we’re kind of throwing different lines out more just because we don’t have a choice. We’re playing hard and that gives you a chance every night when you do that.”
The Hurricanes mustered just 12 shots on goal in the first two periods combined, but two of their first three shots of the third period beat Islanders goalkeeper Robin Lehner to turn the game around. Foegele took an outlet pass down the right wing boards from Lucas Wallmark before scoring on a wrist shot just 17 seconds into the third to tie the game.
Just 48 seconds later, Niederreiter stood in front of the crease and redirected a point shot from Teuvo Teravainen past Lehner to give Carolina its first lead.
“We knew we had to make sure to come out hungry going into the third period,” said Niederreiter, who scored his first goal in this year’s playoffs.
On all measures outside of the scoreboard, the Islanders had the better of the Hurricanes all afternoon, outshooting Carolina 27-18 while delivering 44 hits compared to the Hurricanes’ 33. Though New York carried the play, puck luck went against them on a number of occasions, including three shots that hit either the post or crossbar in the third period. Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle both hit iron two minutes apart midway through the period while defenseman Ryan Pulock rocketed a shot from the blue line off the crossbar with just over a minute remaining. Anders Lee’s rebound after Pulock’s shot hit the side of the net, representing New York’s last great chance to tie the game.
“We had some looks. Hit a couple of posts in the third,” Bailey said. “It could have been a different game, but that’s hockey sometimes.”