February 08, 2012 9:00 AM
The Checkers always knew they had goaltending depth, but perhaps not to this extent.
If someone had said at the start of the season that the team would be without the proven tandem of Mike Murphy and Justin Peters for an extended period of time, most would have predicted trouble. Thanks to the surprising poise of rookie John Muse, recalled from the ECHL’s Florida Everblades as a backup long before circumstances pushed him into regular action, that hasn’t been the case.
Since playing his first Checkers game, a scoreless relief appearance on Dec. 16, Muse is an astounding 7-1-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. He began by allowing just one goal on the first 92 shots he faced, including a 41-save effort in his first start and a 26-save shutout in his second.
With Peters in the NHL and Murphy out indefinitely with an injury suffered during warm-ups on Jan. 24, Muse has more than held the fort, helping the Checkers to their most successful stretch of the season. They’ve won seven of their last nine games, with Muse earning five of those victories.
If it wasn’t for the bright green mask he brought with him from the Everblades, he wouldn’t look out of place one bit.
“He started in the East Coast league just because he had to play, and now he’s the guy for us,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
Muse, a 23-year-old Boston College product, signed a two-way AHL/ECHL deal with the Checkers as an undrafted free agent this past summer. Beginning with an injury to Peters near the start of the season and continuing through NHL stints made by each member of the team’s incumbent duo, Muse dressed but did not play in eight games as Murphy or Peters, whichever player was healthy and on the roster at the time, shouldered the workload alone.
For a player not accustomed to watching games – he started 143 out of a possible 169 in college, including every single contest of his freshman and sophomore seasons – one would think the transition from starter to spectator and back again may have proved difficult.
On the contrary, Muse, who claimed to feeling more excited than nervous or rusty at the time, performed admirably when pushed into action with virtually no advance warning in two of his first four appearances. After finding out he would be starting literally minutes before a game in Norfolk, one of the league’s best offensive teams, Muse allowed just two goals on 31 shots. One of them came with 10 seconds left and had no impact on the Checkers’ 4-2 victory.
“I kind of go into every game, regardless of whether I’m playing or not, the same way, because you never know what can happen,” said Muse. “Murph got hurt in warm-ups, and that never happens.”
“Ever since he got here, even when he wasn’t playing, he’s been very businesslike and professional in the way he handles himself and prepares,” said Daniels.
The attitude is one that most veteran backups have to learn over time, which makes it curious that Muse seems to already have that concept mastered despite knowing he would start virtually every game of his career up until this season.
“I’m a pretty cautious guy,” he said. “I know that at any time a guy can have an off night or get hurt.”
Not known for his size – at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, that may have been the biggest reason an NHL team didn’t draft him – Muse has made up for it with that kind of approach, which carries over to in-game situations.
“He doesn’t seem to get rattled,” said Daniels. “Even if it’s right after he gives up a goal, he’s very focused and ready for that next shot.”
“There are ups and downs, and those are to be expected,” said Muse. “If you take the downs too seriously, guys on your team see that and feed off that. It all starts with the goalie, and I think it helps if they see you staying positive even if bad things are happening.”
That kind of experience stems from his days in college, in which Muse became one of only a handful of goalies to win two national championships, not to mention win one as a freshman. He allowed a total of one goal in two championship games – a 4-1 win over Notre Dame in 2008 and a 5-0 shutout of Wisconsin in 2010.
“I didn’t know a lot about him coming in, but I knew he had a reputation as a big-game goalie and he’s proven that,” said Daniels.
With Murphy potentially able to play as soon as this weekend (though he had not practiced with the team as of Tuesday) and the Hurricanes’ Brian Boucher thought to be only a few weeks away from returning from an injury of his own – a development that could result in Peters coming back to Charlotte – there’s no way of knowing how long Muse’s run in the AHL will last. He could very well end up back in Florida, where he has a 7-3-2 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .927 save percentage this season.
Whatever happens, he’s clearly earned the trust of Daniels, which is important both now and in the future. If Murphy can’t play, it’s likely that Muse would start all three games of a three-in-three set this weekend – a kind of cluster normally split between starter and backup. That comes just months after Murphy played every minute of a similar set in late October with Muse watching from the bench, showing how much things have changed in a relatively short time.
“It’s been great to play,” said Muse. “With Murphy hurt it’s not the best circumstances unfortunately, but I’m glad I got the opportunity.”