After what amounted to a lost year that began in Russia and, following his unexpected release from Spartak Moscow, ended with what turned out to be something of a rushed return to hockey in the spring, the 24-year-old netminder suddenly finds himself as the Checkers’ clear No. 1 option. What could have been a chance to ease back into the game as one of two experienced options along with Justin Peters, since recalled to replace the injured Anton Khudobin in Carolina, has turned into Murphy becoming “the guy” for one of the few times in his professional career.
If early results following a more routine preseason are any indication, he’s ready for the challenge, however long it might last.
“I think I had a good camp with Carolina and have built off that, and to win that first game was big for me,” said Murphy. “At the start of last year I wasn’t feeling confident. It’s completely different in North America where you’re happy off the ice. When things weren’t as good off the ice, it can affect your two and a half hours of game play.
“It’s a whole different planet over there. Russia had a big impact on me mentally, but this season I have a fresh start."
Murphy stopped 22 of 24 shots to pick up a 3-2 victory over the Oklahoma City Barons on Oct. 5, which is actually the Checkers’ most recent game thanks to an unusually long break in the schedule that ends this weekend. That performance, like those seen during the preseason, much more closely resembled the Murphy of a few years ago as opposed to the one who returned to Charlotte on something of an emergency basis during last season’s injury crisis.
Murphy only played two games during that time, allowing a total of nine goals on 47 shots. Based on his earlier track record, one that still allows him to hold Checkers’ records for most regular-season and playoff wins, the organization never planned to hold that against him.
“Last year was a tough year for him with a lot of time off,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Now he has a lot more confidence and wants to be in the net.”
Since backstopping Charlotte to the Eastern Conference Final during the 2011 playoffs, Murphy has mostly shared the net with Peters. Whenever Peters has been with the Hurricanes, which has ended up being quite often, Murphy has either been injured or absent entirely, making this something of a rare opportunity.
“I’m 24 years old and I’ve been a starter at every level I’ve been at,” said Murphy. “It’s very unfortunate what happened to Anton, but it’s exciting for me.
“Everyone knows how good Justin Peters is. He’s a two-time AHL All-Star, so whenever he’s here it’s a battle for me and I have to be on my game. He pushes me and I push him, but when he’s gone it’s exciting.”
In addition to merely being back in game shape and up to game speed, Murphy has also made some stylistic tweaks to his game, or rather, has reversed some previous tweaks with the support of Carolina goaltending coach Greg Stefan.
“I’ve changed my style a little bit closer to the way I played in junior,” said Murphy, who became the first player to win back-to-back Ontario Hockey League goaltender of the year honors in 2008 and 2009. “(As a professional), I started off trying to be the textbook, butterfly goalie, but I like to be more athletic. (The textbook way) works for some goalies, but others have to do their own thing.”
Murphy’s altered style, if it ends up resembling anything close to the “unorthodox” kind that scouting reports on him described prior to and following his sixth-round selection in the 2008 draft, is to simply stop shots in whatever way necessary.
“He battled hard,” said Daniels of Murphy’s first game this season. “He never quits on a puck. Whenever you think he’s down and out, he dives over to make that save.”
Though the Checkers have recalled Jesse Deckert from ECHL Florida to replace Peters, there’s a fairly good chance that Murphy will start against Iowa on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon. Whatever happens beyond that depends on the health of Khudobin, whose injury initially appeared to be quite serious but a subsequent MRI since revealed what Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford called “the best-case scenario.”
Murphy himself doesn’t know what to expect as far as his workload, but he feel as though he’s ready for whatever comes.
“I feel good, he said. “I feel like I’m seeing the puck really well.”