Moments later — and to almost everyone’s surprise — he was in the middle of the action.
"I’m sitting there (charting) faceoffs," McElhinney said. "Next thing you know they’re handing my gloves to me."
McElhinney stopped 13 of 15 shots in relief of injured starter Frederik Andersen — including a couple while his team was a killing a penalty in overtime — before Mitchell Marner scored the winner in the shootout as Toronto extended its franchise-record home winning streak to 11 games with a wild 6-5 victory over the Dallas Stars.
"The heart rate spikes," McElhinney said of getting called on without any warning. "It certainly goes up and the adrenaline starts pumping.
"Once the first shot’s taken you kind of settle in."
Marner beat Kari Lehtonen in the third round of the shootout after Patrick Marleau tied things with 15.2 seconds left in regulation as the Leafs stormed back from 4-2 and 5-4 deficits over the final 20 minutes.
"It was a strange game," said McElhinney, who will start Thursday in Buffalo. "Just a nice way to come back and pull it out."
Andersen skated to the bench during a television timeout with 9:35 left in the second and headed straight to the locker-room with a upper-body injury.
There was no obvious sign the netminder was hurt, but Leafs head coach Mike Babcock didn’t seem overly concerned afterwards.
Tyler Bozak, who also scored in the shootout, and Marner each added two assists as the Leafs improved to 3-2-2 since star centre Auston Matthews went down with a shoulder injury on Feb. 22.
Tyler Seguin, with a goal and two assists, Jamie Benn, with a goal and an assist, Radek Faska, Remi Elie and Brett Ritchie replied for Dallas (38-26-7), which got 28 stops from Lehtonen.
The Stars, who were playing the second of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights, are in a battle for their playoff lives in the Western Conference.
"We came back and won the hockey game about three times, but we ran out of gas," Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It’s tough. I felt for the players."
After van Riemsdyk scored twice in the third to knot things 4-4, Ritchie beat McElhinney at 13:18 for his sixth goal of the season.
But Marleau tied it late in regulation when he tipped home Marner’s shot for his 22nd to send the game overtime.
"The first two periods, we didn’t get much going," Marner said. "In the third we turned it around. Big goals from James. Mac coming in there was a turning point. He played great for us."
Outshot 25-15 and trailing 4-2 through what were a mostly listless first two periods after a jumping out to an early 2-0 lead, the Leafs got back within one at 5:13 of the third when van Riemsdyk flipped his second of the night and 28th of the campaign into the roof of Lehtonen’s net.
Toronto got the game’s first power play with about 10 minutes left, and van Riemsdyk scored his third of the night, and team-leading 29th, at 10:43 off a hard pass from Marner.
Tied 2-2 after the first, the Stars came out flying to start the second before Seguin gave his team its first lead at 4:30 with his 37th.
Coming off back-to-back losses, including Tuesday’s 4-2 setback in Montreal, the Stars then made it 4-2 at 14:03 on McElhinney when Elie scored his sixth to set the stage for a wild third.
Toronto opened the scoring at 4:28 of the first when Kadri took advantage of a horrendous Lehtonen miscue in front to tap home his 27th.
The crowd at Air Canada Centre barely had a chance to get back in their seats before van Riemsdyk made it 2-0 just 25 seconds later when he banged in a rebound — also his 27th — off a scramble in front.
The Stars got on the board with the teams playing 4-on-4 at 14:29 when Seguin fed Benn for his 25th, and Dallas tied it 1:32 later when Greg Pateryn’s shot from the point ticked off Faska in front for his 14th.
"We got the break on the (Kadri) goal, we scored a good goal when James got the second one," Babcock said. "Then they dominated the next 35 minutes — not even close. They played great and we didn’t. They were better than us.
"We didn’t handle the forecheck, we didn’t execute, we didn’t make any plays, we didn’t play heavy. But I thought we came out in the third period and we dug in."