The Maple Leafs handed Petr Mrazek a sizable chunk of change to be their backup goaltender and until now it has looked like an iffy investment.
Sidelined by groin injuries twice and then in sick bay because of COVID-19, Mrazek made just his fifth start of the season on Saturday and for the first time looked as though he could be a capable fill-in for Jack Campbell.
In his best performance in a Toronto uniform, Mrazek turned away 27 of 28 shots in a 3-1 victory over the New York Islanders. The encounter concluded a tough six-game trip during which the Maple Leafs were a more-than-acceptable 3-2-1.
Pierre Engvall scored the winner, Mitch Marner had one short-handed and Morgan Rielly got the other as the team improved to 25-10-3 and retained its grip on third place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division.
An unrestricted free agent, Mrazek signed a three-year contract during the summer worth US$11.4-million. He had hardly done anything to appear that he would be a reliable alternative to Campbell until he made his second start in January and then only his third in five weeks over the weekend.
“It has been tough,” Mrazek said during a postgame virtual conference with journalists. “I was hurt for a long time. I am trying to build momentum with each game I play and go from there.”
The win was Mrazek’s third of the year and it came against one of the worst offensive teams in the league, but was promising nonetheless.
The Maple Leafs folded like a cheap suit multiple times with two-goal leads on their road trip, but this time Mrazek stopped all 15 shots in the third period with the team holding a 3-1 lead.
“I felt good there,” said Mrazek, who is from the Czech Republic and in his 10th NHL season. “You just have to be ready any time a shot comes.
“They were down 3-1 and had to come at us hard. We expected they would throw a lot of pucks at the net.”
This was the first time the 29-year-old has shown flashes of the form that helped him win 23 and 21 games previously for Carolina and 27 once with Detroit.
“It is nice to see him play with confidence and swagger and for us to win,” said Marner, who has goals in each of the past three games. “He has worked really hard to come back.”
Toronto has 44 regular-season games still to play over the next three months and Mrazek’s role will take on more importance.
At 19-6-3 with a .927 save percentage, Campbell has been exceptional overall but has allowed 18 goals in his past four starts. Most likely, his sudden ineffectiveness was caused by exhaustion and overuse.
There will very few breaks the rest of the way. Eight games postponed because of the coronavirus have been jammed into an already tight schedule. That will create a lot of ice time for Mrazek.
“I look forward to it,” he said.
This summer, when he signed with Maple Leafs, he said it was an easy choice.
In Toronto, he said, “Every single night, you are on the radar.”
That will be even more true than ever now, and his teammates are glad to have him in the fold.
“Petr is an extremely happy guy and takes a lot of pride in his work,” Rielly, the Toronto defenceman, said late Saturday night. “We were lucky to add him in the off-season and he played great tonight.
“If he can get rolling and play with confidence, that will be great.”
The Maple Leafs finally return to Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday for an engagement with Anaheim. The Ducks are a surprising 20-16-7 and trail first-place Vegas by only three points in the Pacific Division.
Toronto hit some potholes on the road trip but there were some encouraging signs. Its defence played much better against the Islanders, especially youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Marner is catching fire. So is Ilya Mikheyev.
And finally, it looks as though there may be a capable No. 2 in the net.
“He’s been waiting for opportunities,” John Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain, said of Mrazek. “It was great to see him come in and deliver a big effort for us.”