Mazanec Keeping Predators Afloat Without Rinne
NASHVILLE -- Marek Mazanec said his mother has bombarded him with correspondence from his native Czech Republic.
Thursday, a correspondent who works for a Czech television network arrived here and began sending dispatches back home. The 22-year-old goalie for the Nashville Predators, named the NHL Rookie of the Month for November, said he never expected such success so quickly while playing in his first season in North America.
In all likelihood, his parents didn't either.
"They watch it all the time," Mazanec said. "My mom's still bombing me with messages. It's crazy."
Gone are the days when an Eastern European player with limited English skills would feel isolated and grow homesick in the NHL. Mazanec said he corresponds all the time with his family via Skype and other smartphone applications.
Just as those apps can prove a godsend for a rookie with culture shock, Mazanec has proved a godsend for the Predators, who have battled through 23 of their 32 games without two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne. He remains out indefinitely with a staph infection in his hip. The Predators are hopeful Rinne will begin some light work in a week, but for now he remains on crutches.
As a result, the season's hopes have rested on Mazanec and Carter Hutton, the latter who entered this season with one game of NHL experience. The Predators learned of Rinne's situation after the goalie complained of soreness following a 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 22.
Hutton went 3-1-1 in his first five games then faltered. The Predators could have gone with another 22-year-old rookie, Magnus Hellberg, who spent last season and this one with their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee.
However, Nashville opted instead for the lanky Mazanec (the ending is pronounced "nets"). Mazanec (6-foot-4, 187 pounds) had played five games with the Admirals but was 5-0-0 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. The decision took Mazanec by surprise.
"I play like five games in Milwaukee, then they call me up," he said. "Oh, really? What's going on?"
Mazanec lost his first two starts on the road, when the Predators were slumping. Following a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in which Mazanec was pulled after two periods, coach Barry Trotz decided to start Mazanec again the next night at home against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Trotz said the decision was partly based on the idea that Hutton played the past couple of seasons in the Blackhawks' organization until Nashville signed him in July. Trotz thought the Chicago players would have known Hutton's tendencies. Mazanec represented an unknown quantity for the Blackhawks' dead-eye shooters.
The decision proved fortuitous. Mazanec earned his first NHL win 7-2, making 39 saves. Including that game, Mazanec went 5-2-1 over an eight-game period, never allowing more than two goals, and helped keep the Predators' season afloat. They enter Friday eight points out of the final berth for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference and hold a game in hand on the eighth-place Vancouver Canucks.
"It's good feelings," Mazanec said of earning the NHL Rookie of the Month. "Really happy, but it's such a full team. They make it easy for me. Play really good all the games I play."
Mazanec, who went through the NHL Draft twice before the Predators selected him in the sixth round (No. 179) in 2012 a few weeks before his 21st birthday, said he played 20 or 21 games in a row last season for HC Skoda Plzen in the Czech Republic during the playoffs. However, he had never played so many games in such a short time as he did with the Predators. He started 13 straight games in 22 days, including twice on back-to-back nights.
"Yeah, that's the hardest part," Mazanec said. "You have no rest. You have no time for recovery, so it's hard."
At the end of that run, Mazanec's play tailed off. In his final three starts, he allowed 12 goals in 157 minutes, so Trotz went back to Hutton, who has won two straight.
Trotz said that is the trials and tribulations of backup goalies.
"We have two excellent goaltenders," Trotz said. "They're just not at the No. 1 status. They're not there yet. Maybe in the American League, Carter has done that for a long time. Maz has done it over in Europe, but in the NHL it is hard to be that guy and it takes a while, and so Pekka's done it for a while. A guy like Carter can come in and do that for a little while but he falls off. Same with Maz, and so they're not at the NHL starter status yet, if you will.
"Can they get there? Yeah. But it's going to take some time."
Mazanec is the only Eastern European player on the Predators, which he said is good for him because it helps him to do more things on his own and improve his English.
For now, Hutton is hot and Trotz will take his turn riding him. Hutton has allowed one goal apiece in each of his past two starts, each a victory. Trotz has said Mazanec's turn will come around again. The coaching staff has emphasized that to him and to Hutton before him: Be prepared.
At some point, however, Rinne will return. What will happen then? To answer that question, Mazanec might not have the greatest command of the language, but he does understand the correct response.
"I think when Pekka will be OK," he said, "I will probably go back to Milwaukee and play other games."