Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek nearing return to NHL action

At first, when Max McCormick crashed into Petr Mrazek, colliding with the unprotected hand on the back of Mrazek’s blocker, the Carolina Hurricanes goalie thought he broke his right wrist. Or maybe a couple fingers, from the way the pain shot up his arm. Then he saw his thumb dangling. He’d never skated as fast as he did toward the bench.

It took doctors two tries to pop his dislocated right thumb back into place in the locker room that night four weeks ago, putting a semicolon on Mrazek’s scorching hot start to the delayed season.

Two tries.

“You’re in shock, I would say,” Mrazek told the News & Observer on Saturday. “You don’t feel it much in the beginning, when the doctor grabs your hand and the thumb. It’s a great feeling when he puts it back. Your body releases, the stress and everything. I was happy they were able to put it back, because I heard from other players and from my friends, sometimes it doesn’t happen.”

Sometimes it doesn’t, and Mrazek would have missed even more time if that were the case. But after undergoing surgery in Colorado on Feb. 3, Mrazek practiced with a stick in his hand for the first time Saturday before the Hurricanes’ game at the Florida Panthers, one step closer to getting back in the net.

Tampa Bays Blake Coleman (21) tries to score on Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek (34) during the first period on Thursday, January 28, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell told the N&O on Friday that the team is targeting next Sunday, when the Hurricanes host the Panthers, for Mrazek’s return. As he feels his way through this process, Mrazek isn’t putting any timetables on anything.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Mrazek said. “I would like to play this Monday if that would be possible. But I will just take it day by day. It depends how the hand feels and then we go from there. If it’s Tuesday, Thursday, next week, 10 days, it’s hard to say with these injuries.”

While James Reimer and Alex Nedeljkovic have been more than adequate in Mrazek’s absence, neither has approached the level Mrazek was playing at to start the season. He allowed three goals in four starts, two of them shutouts, for a ridiculous 0.99 goals-against average and .954 save percentage, both best in the NHL when he was hurt. That may not be possible to sustain, injury or no, but the closer Mrazek plays to that level, the higher the Hurricanes’ ceiling as a team.

“Hopefully, we can get him back as soon as he’s ready,” Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton said. “We haven’t seen him too much on the ice, but he’s getting better and better.”

The eyes have it

Mrazek is confident he can pick up where he left off, because his hot start had roots months earlier, in another injury absence almost exactly one year ago. Last February, Mrazek suffered a concussion in a collision with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kyle Clifford, the second of two goalie injuries that night leading to David Ayres’ famous emergency cameo in net, coming soon to a Disney movie.

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek (34) hits the ice after Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Kyle Clifford (73) skated into him during second-period NHL hockey game action in Toronto, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) Frank Gunn AP

The concussion caused problems with Mrazek’s vision that had to be addressed with special therapy to retrain his brain how to focus in sync, a relatively common brain-injury symptom. But the treatment became a tool for Mrazek, who continued with the vision therapy long after his symptoms abated.

“It’s just to connect my eyes with my body, have them working together at the same time,” Mrazek said. “Those are things I never knew about them. When my concussion happened, I was happy it wasn’t that bad, but it showed me something I was missing. Now everything’s in place. I feel like it really worked.”

The connection between vision training and performance isn’t new — the Hurricanes’ former team eye doctor, Mike Peters, wrote a book about the importance of vision in sports and how it can be improved, called “See to Play” — but Mrazek found his concussion treatment with Raleigh neuro-ophthalmologist Susan Durham had an immediate and positive impact on his play, even in his first game back in March, the Hurricanes’ last before the season shut down because of COVID.

That carried through into the playoff bubble in August, where Mrazek finished in the top eight in goals-against average and save percentage despite the Hurricanes’ first-round elimination at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

The rap on Mrazek has always been that he’s a reflex goalie who can make the difficult first save but isn’t always able to get back in position to handle rebounds or net-front scrambles. In the process of working to improve his vision and eye reflexes, he found he could be slightly less aggressive in the net. He spent the summer working on it, and got immediate results when the season started in January.

Detroit Red Wings left wing Tyler Bertuzzi (59) tries to get a shot on Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek (34) in the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya AP

“I feel like I’m waiting for the puck even more,” Mrazek said. “I don’t feel like I have to play as aggressive. I can be a little deeper, stay big in net. I was looking into changing it over the years, but also that’s experience. I’ve been around for a long time. I have the experience playing games, and I see the game differently now.”

Still, even with all that experience, there’s always something novel around the corner. While Mrazek has been injured many times before, like any goalie, none of them were ever as visibly shocking as the sight of his thumb in the wrong place. That was a new one.

“That was the first time,” Mrazek said. “I hope I won’t go through that again.”

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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