RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Things have rarely come easy to Curtis McElhinney. His NHL career has spanned over a decade at this point, but he’s had to fight for every opportunity he’s had.
McElhinney’s most recent opportunity has come in Carolina. Garret Sparks beat him for the backup goaltender job in Toronto during the preseason, bringing the end to a two-year stay with the Maple Leafs.
It also began a tenure with the Hurricanes. No one was sure exactly how long it would last. Scott Darling’s strong preseason came to a halt when he suffered a lower-body injury in the finale against Nashville, so the Hurricanes opted to claim McElhinney off of waivers to go along with Petr Mrazek as the team’s netminding duo until Darling recovered.
Because of that uncertainty, though, the 35-year-old journeyed down to Raleigh without his wife and two children. He was using his Hockey Canada gear instead of customized Hurricanes pads. Very little was settled in his life.
That’s all changing now. McElhinney has backstopped seven of Carolina’s 12 wins thus far, turning what the team planned to be a fix to a short-term problem into a new home for himself and his family.
“It’s a little bit more challenging now with the kids and their schools and activities,” McElhinney said of the moving process. “Those are things we’ve got to figure out. We’ve got to find an area that will be ideal for us. Obviously, for myself, I don’t want to be driving too far to the rink.”
McElhinney forced the hand of Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell. Darling struggled after returning from injury, leading to him being waived last week. McElhinney, meanwhile, has a .930 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average heading into Wednesday’s rematch in San Jose with the Sharks.
Numerous Hurricanes, including captain Justin Williams, have described McElhinney as a calming presence. He’s reliable and steady, they say.
And McElhinney has given the Hurricanes chances to win. The team’s defense ranks fifth in the NHL in goals against. The goal scoring ranks 29th in the league, though, meaning some of those opportunities have been left on the table.
McElhinney doesn’t dazzle often. With eight shutouts in 144 career starts, the players in front of him know he’s liable to give up a few goals here and there. Still, he’s shown he can rise to the occasion. Arguably the best save of his career saw him slide across the crease to make a pad save on Sidney Crosby, robbing the Penguin stud and preserving a lead that sent the Maple Leafs to the playoffs in 2017.
“It was a pretty special moment. Obviously, it was the game that put us into the playoffs that year,” McElhinney said. “So, for myself to come off the bench and jump in there, make a big, critical save at a big time, it was one of those things that adds to your confidence.
“As far as calmness and stability, that’s all you’re trying to provide this team right now. I think, if anything, they don’t need exceptional goaltending. They’re just looking for steady goaltending.”
McElhinney’s last start was a 2-1 overtime loss to Anaheim on Friday. Mrazek was in net as the Hurricanes fell to Los Angeles, 2-0, Sunday at the beginning of their west-coast swing.
McElhinney will hope to help Carolina complete a season sweep of the Sharks Wednesday. They’ll wrap up their California tour Friday against the Ducks, one of McElhinney’s six former teams, before returning home Dec. 11 to host the Toronto club that waived him just before the season.
“My rule of thumb is that, if I don’t remember how to get to my old house or address, then it’s kind of water under the bridge,” McElhinney said of whether or not games against former teams have special meaning to him.
So just like how the team is riding the hot hand that has been McElhinney’s work in goal, McElhinney is enjoying this latest opportunity while it lasts.
“If I’ve learned anything over the years, I don’t think there are any guarantees. I’ve felt good about a situation, and the next week I’m in a different home,” he said. “Circumstances change in a hurry, especially at this level. It’s a results-based business.”