Murphy rules in Belleville instead of Ottawa

By Jason Menard

As the hockey world focuses on the World Junior Hockey Championships and Team Canada’s defense of its gold medal against Team Sweden, a player not on the roster still casts a shadow far longer than his smallish stature would seem to command. Regardless of how Team Canada fares tonight, the national team’s loss has been the Belleville Bulls’ gain.

The OHL‘s top goalie, Carolina draft pick Mike Murphy, didn’t even receive an invitation to the pre-tournament camp, but the Inverary, ON native is taking the omission in stride.

"Obviously everyone in the Ontario Hockey League probably wanted an invite to that camp," Murphy said. "Seriously, it would have been phenomenal. It was definitely tough to swallow, but it’s not the end of the world at all. I’m going to keep working hard every night. [After being passed over for the camp] I got a shutout against Windsor, so that was nice to have — obviously everything happens for a reason."

Murphy added that his experience at Team Canada’s summer camp helped him achieve the success he’s enjoyed this season.

"I’m not bitter at all for Hockey Canada. I got to go to their summer camp and work with people like Corey Hirsch, Bill Ranford, and Sean Burke and they taught me a ton," Murphy explained. "I think I’ve learned a lot from them and I’m sure there are more great goalies there. I really appreciate that they invited me to the summer camp."

The Bulls’ General Manager and Head Coach, George Burnett, is effusive in his praise for how his goaltender handled the situation.

"He was disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to go to the World Junior camp, but he’s handled it like a pro and I think he’s even more determined to continue to play well and he’s turned his attention to winning games for our club and his NHL team, Carolina," Burnett said. "He says the right things. I give him full marks — he could have been disappointed and disgruntled and let it affect the team, but he wasn’t. I’m sure he’s disappointed, but there’s no question that he’s a very focused young man.

"He knows where his future lies if he continues along the path that he’s on right now. We hope that we can help him get there, but as for extra motivation — he wants to be the best goaltender everywhere and I don’t know if he needs a lot more motivation than that."

At the very least, Murphy is proving to be the top goalie in the OHL. In 32 games, Murphy has compiled  22-6-2-2 record behind a 2.04 GAA and a superlative .943 save percentage. But don’t think that Murphy’s stats are inflated by a steadfast defensive corps — in fact, the 5’11 goaltender is standing tall in the face of over 36 shots a night. Only Saginaw’s Edward Pasquale has faced more shots than Murphy, but he’s also played in six more games. Pasquale’s averaging five fewer shots per game than Murphy.

Yet, despite the barrage of shots, Murphy is the league’s top goaltender in both GAA and save percentage. He also stands behind only Windsor’s Andrew Engelage in wins.

In regards to the workload, Murphy chooses to look at it as a positive. 

"I think it’s really good for my development as a goaltender. It’s a lot of shots every night, but I think I’m getting better because of it," he said. "It’s a lot better than getting 20 shots against a night. The thing is we’re winning, so that makes us feel good and we’ve got some goal scorers on our team that we can count on.

"I think junior hockey is all about development and being on a team that gives up a lot of shots has been great for me."

Ever the team player, Murphy’s quick to credit the team in front of him for limiting the quality of chances.

"The team is trying hard, they’re getting rid of those second and third rebounds, so they’re doing great. I’m confident of the team in front of me and I think they’re going to score at least three or four goals every night," Murphy explained. "I just have to keep it under two [goals] and we’ve got it. So far that’s what we’ve done and we’ve had a lot of success with it."

His coach and general manager, however, suggests that Murphy’s been far more essential to the club’s success than Murphy’s willing to concede.

"He’s the reason why we’re at where we’re at," Burnett said. "We’ve had other guys who have been having great seasons, but with our lineup we’d probably be a game or two above or a game or two below .500. He’s been a huge factor. He’s had a lot of work and but we’ve been able to minimize the scrambles in front of the net. He’s not a big guy by any stretch of the imagination, so you’re helping him when you’re preventing those scrambles and having those guys running him over in the net."

The Bulls made a significant run in the playoffs, advancing to the Memorial Cup last year. This year, if the club is to repeat that feat, they’ll be relying on Murphy to a greater degree. Understanding that, Murphy’s said it’s changed the way he approaches each and every game.

"Compared to last year, definitely there’s been a difference. There were some games last year where I’d come in and think, ‘well, I guess this is sort of a night off,’ because I’d only be facing 20 shots or so," he said. "This year I know I’m going to have to work hard because I’m going to be facing a lot of shots — at least 35 a night. It’s a lot of pressure because you have to be prepared.

"On a three-game weekend, you can see 40, 40, 40, so that can be tough too. You’ve got to battle mentally and remain mentally sharp all along."

And through working with the club that holds his NHL rights, he’s been able to work on the things he’s needed to ensure resiliency, endurance, and success.

"I talked to Carolina about it and I try to take in a lot of fluids, because you know you’re going to be playing the next day," he said. "You get 21 shots in the first period, you’ve just got to be ready, you can’t be dehydrated, and you have to eat a lot — get a good post-game meal and fluids."

If Murphy was good last year in the playoffs, opponents should look out this year, because the young netminder said last year’s experience has left him better prepared for this year’s post-season tournament.

"It’s huge, going that deep into the playoffs. Especially for the younger guys," he said. "It’s great for experience — it’s a long season and we got to stay on the ice for a lot longer and you get all the jitters out.

"I don’t have to be nervous anymore because I’ve been in huge games."

Murphy attended Carolina’s camp this year and is quick to credit a former NHLer — who shares much the same stature with Murphy — in helping him take his game to the next level.

"I learned a ton from them. Being on the ice with Tom Barasso, actually, the goalie coach with Carolina, he gave me a lot of tips on how to play at a higher level, like what you have to expect," Murphy said. "I mean, the releases are much faster at that level, so he said that I just have to work harder and harder. I started working harder at getting from post to post faster and faster. You’re a bit more tired at the end of practise, but that’s just what you have to do to get better.

"Some of the tips he gave me were phenomenal and I’m looking forward to summer to work with him. He’s happy with my style right now. He just wants me to stop the puck and come back. I have a ton of belief in him and he’s doing a great job with Cam Ward and [Michael] Leighton right now. In the summer I hope to get a chance to go up there and work with them a little bit more — and definitely at next year’s camp."

Murphy’s focus is firmly in Belleville this season, but he said he’s anxious to take the next step in his progression — wherever that may take him.

"Next year — I mean, obviously everyone’s dream is to be in the NHL — but I’m just going to work hard over the summer and Carolina’s got a good AHL team there, so I’d love to play with them," he said. "I really want to play pro hockey and I want to step forward in my career, so even if I have to play in the ECHL, I’d love to do that. I’m going to work hard and so far, so good this season. Hopefully I can impress the Carolina scouts and get a contract next year."