by Jesse Eisenberg || AHL On The Beat Archive
A spate of injuries to three of the Carolina Hurricanes’ top five goaltenders have recently thrust veteran Mike Morrison into the starting role with the Albany River Rats, and the eighth-year backstop couldn’t be happier.
“It’s great to finally get into a rhythm and to play a lot of games,” said the 30-year-old Morrison. “It feels like this team has looked high and low throughout Albany and the Capital Region, but it looks like I’m the last guy in this state that can play net. I’ll take it and I’m just glad I was ready.”
AHL All-Star goalie Justin Peters is on an extended recall to Carolina as one of two replacements for the Hurricanes’ injured starter Cam Ward, and injuries to rookie Mike Murphy and recent acquisition Justin Pogge in Albany have handed Morrison the starting job.
He’s quickly taken advantage of the opportunity, backstopping the River Rats to four straight wins in the opening weeks of March.
“It’s tough for a goalie,” said Albany head coach Jeff Daniels. “You have to have a special mindset to be able to prepare yourself and keep pushing yourself in practice in order to be ready for that opportunity, not knowing when it’s going to come. That’s where being older has helped him. He’s a veteran guy and he knows how to prepare and get himself ready so that when he’s called upon, he can do the job.”
While his experience may have prepared him for the long wait on the sidelines, Morrison is the first to admit that his patience had been wearing thin earlier in the campaign.
“I won’t sugar coat it: it felt terrible,” said the Medford, Mass., native. “There’s only one spot per game to play and this is Petey’s (Justin Peters’) team. I’m really glad that I’ve been given some sort of chance here. Whether it is to show this organization, or the teams that I’m playing against that I can keep playing. I want to show people I can still do it.”
Edomonton’s seventh-round selection in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft has appeared in 29 NHL games with Edmonton, Ottawa and Phoenix. His most successful season came in 2005-06 with the Oilers, when he posted a 2.81 GAA and an .884 save percentage with a 10-4-2 record in 21 NHL games.
He’d also played in 86 AHL games before this season, with his most recent campaign coming in 2007-08 with Bridgeport, where he posted a 2.80 GAA and .911 save percentage with a 23-17-1 record in 43 games.
After splitting the 2008-09 season between the Austrian Hockey League’s Ljubljana Olimpija HK and the Swedish Elite League’s Modo Hockey Ornskoldvik, Morrison signed an AHL contract with Albany to become the club’s third goaltender behind Peters and Murphy, who were both under Carolina contracts.
The journeyman opened the season with Albany’s ECHL affiliate in Florida, then served as a backup for the River Rats during 11 games before finally seeing his first AHL action of the season with some relief work on Jan. 30. Morrison made his first AHL start of the season on Feb. 12.
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“I thought with Albany, even though I signed pretty early with them, it would be a little bit better of a chance to play than it turned out to be,” admitted Morrison. “I’m glad that I’ve been rewarded here with some lucky breaks, even though it’s been at the expense of some other goalies having some unlucky breaks. That’s part of the game and we’ve each been on both sides of that coin.”
Albany’s third-string goalie wasn’t even handed the starting job when the top two netminders fell out of the picture. With Peters in Carolina and Murphy in a hand cast, the Hurricanes quickly traded for 23-year-old prospect Justin Pogge at the NHL trade deadline.
But when Pogge went down with an injury in just his third game with the River Rats on Mar. 12 in Rochester, it was finally Morrison’s turn.
“It’s just a totem poll effect,” said Morrison. “You start to see chinks in the armor and think, ‘I’ve got to start buckling down in practice because they might run out of goalies here.’”
When his chance finally came, the former University of Maine Black Bears star did exactly what Daniels had signed him to do.
“He’s really stepped up and taken it upon himself to meet the challenge of being a number-one guy,” said Daniels. “He’s been patient and he’s waited for this opportunity; it’s all he’s asked for. He’s a veteran guy and he’s been around the league, so there’s no panic to his game. He’s not nervous out there. He’s giving us a chance to win every game.”
Now Morrison is finally back in his comfort zone, stringing together multiple starts and feeling good between the pipes.
“It’s good to get in a rhythm and to play a lot of games. I think the best part about it is that I’ve got a front-row seat to watching a good team playing in front of me. Our team’s playing great and we’re just doing all the little things. It’s thematic of this time of year: you’ve got to peak.”
Peters is likely to return to the River Rats for a potential Calder Cup run, so Albany’s six remaining regular season games may be Morrison’s last chance to show his stuff to all the coaches, scouts, players and teams in not only the AHL but throughout the world of professional hockey.
Asked to reflect on his long-awaited handful of consecutive starts, Morrison harkened the mantra that has served him well throughout a lengthy career of stopping pucks.
“I’m just glad I was ready. That’s all it is — Be ready when you get that opportunity.”