Goaltender John Muse was not expected to see much time with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this season, if any.
Signed in early July to an AHL deal by the Phantoms, Muse began the season with ECHL Reading, sharing the crease with Mark Dekanich, who returned to the organization for his second year. Only if there was an injury somewhere in the tiers above would Muse reach Allentown.
It's a safe bet most Phantoms fans, even the most die-hard, didn't recognize his name upon his first promotion. However, after appearing in just one home game for the Phantoms in December, when he returned to Allentown in February, "Muuuuuuse" chants echoed through PPL Center after each big save by the 29-year-old netminder.
Back and forth between Allentown and Reading with three Phantoms starts in December and one at the beginning of February — with solid showings in both mini stints — Muse is back with Lehigh Valley again and it appears this time he'll be sticking around for at least a couple weeks.
Any fan of the Flyers organization knows goaltending drama is always lurking around the corner. This year's never-ending saga is extreme, even for Flyers standards.
Prospect Anthony Stolarz, who was supposed to form a duo in Lehigh Valley with Alex Lyon, was lost due to surgery to repair his left knee for the second time in five months in September. Leland Irving was brought in to fill the void but that was temporary as he was swapped in an October deal with Anaheim for Dustin Tokarski. It boosted the Flyers' depth at the position since Tokarski had NHL experience.
Other than the usual minor injury here or there, things settled down for a while. But now, within a week's time, the Flyers have lost both of their goalies — Brian Elliott (injured Feb. 10, out five to six weeks after undergoing core muscle surgery) and Michal Neuvirth (injured Sunday, out four to six weeks with a lower body injury). Out of the top four goalies on the depth chart, Lyon was the only one left standing Monday morning.
Stolarz was activated by the Flyers Monday night and loaned to the Phantoms but he is not game ready yet. He was not at Tuesday's practice. He'll remain in Philadelphia with goaltender development coach Brady Robinson this week, according to Phantoms coach Scott Gordon. The tentative plan is to rejoin Lehigh Valley next week. That makes sense since there's no point to travel if he's not going to play and the Phantoms hit the road immediately after Tuesday's practice with away games Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. There's also no available ice in Allentown with Monster Jam at PPL Center Friday through Sunday.
Just after Stolarz was activated, Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall swung a deal to bring in Petr Mrazek from Detroit to form a new tandem in Philadelphia for the time being. They were not prepared to count solely on Lyon, who entered Tuesday with just two career NHL starts under his belt and a total of four games.
All of that has created an opportunity for Muse to open some eyes for more than just a night or two at the AHL level. He'll still be sharing time with Tokarski in Lehigh Valley but if his recent play continues it will be hard for Gordon to sit him often.
"John's played great," Gordon, a former goalie, said after Muse backstopped a 4-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Sunday. "I don't think we could ask him to play any better. He's been terrific in all six games that he's played."
In five of his six games with the Phantoms he has allowed two or fewer goals. In his first appearance with the team Dec. 12, he relieved Tokarski after Tokarski allowed three goals in the first 8:46. Muse stopped all 25 shots he faced in relief. In six games with the Phantoms he has a spectacular 1.89 goals against average.
He's been playing well even when he heads back to Reading, where he owns a 2.27 GAA in 24 games. His play for the Royals also earned him ECHL Goaltender of the Month for January.
Dealing with call-ups is something Muse has gotten used to in his seven pro seasons. Splitting his time between the ECHL and AHL, Muse has played more than 30 games at the same level in one season just once. In 2013-14 he played 47 games with AHL Charlotte and posted a 2.73 GAA.
While Muse hasn't been able to control where he is, he has at least tried to create a consistency within his game.
"I think that's a huge thing and what I've really tried to work on throughout my career is being consistent night in and night out, as well as day in and down out, coming to practice and everything," Muse said. "I think the way I prepare, I do everything the same."
There's no telling how long Muse's chance at the AHL level will last, or what twist the Flyers' goaltending narrative will take next, but Muse isn't looking at the big picture. He is just focused on doing his job wherever he is, just like he has his entire career.
"I try to stay pretty even-keeled," Muse said. "Regardless of where I am, my ultimate goal at the end of the day is to play at the highest level. I know with my career I have to prove myself every single day and that's what I'm trying to do."