Sunday, October 19, 2014

Murray ecstatic as Phantoms appear to have a fighting chance in Allentown

Thanks to
by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

The branch of the Murray family from Shawville, Quebec that has made a name for itself in the National Hockey League is notorious for showing very little outward emotion, even when the going gets tough.

So, it was noticeable that Terry Murray -- former head coach of the Capitals, Flyers, Panthers and Kings and now current head coach for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms -- approached the dais in PPL Center after his club's 4-3 overtime win against the Adirondack Flames on Friday night a little lighter in the step.

You had to look closely at the creases in the face and the turn of the mouth of the well-traveled 64-year-old, but it was obvious he was pleased by what he saw: not only the sellout crowd, and the performance of his top forwards, but also by his surroundings in a brand-new building.

"I'm smiling because we won, and that's it," Murray deadpanned, but displaying a rare jocular expression. 

The original iteration of the Phantoms played in the Spectrum, whose memories of board-rattling hockey echoed throughout the progressively-emptier arena for years after the building became obsolete even by the standards of the American Hockey League. Though the Brooks Brothers only planned to plant the club at the foot of the Adirondacks for three years before a final move, it became four and then five, with the Civic Center sliding into obsolescence as it was used to attract another team once the Phantoms left.

The brothers' dream has come to fruition and earned rave reviews from an unlikely, though telling source who just might slide off into retirement coaching within its environs.

"It's an incredible place ...  the health club, the hospital, the rehab center,. the yoga room, it's a amazing set-up. The amenities in this building are better than a lot of building that are in the NHL. This is a miniature NHL building at the high end," Murray gushed -- or as much as his personality allowed, anyway.

Now, both the franchise and the man tasked with the on-ice decisions to develop a wealth of talent, seem to have a new lease on life in a new town. While it's up to Murray and the Phantoms themselves to make everything work every night once the clock starts at 20:00 of the first period, all the off-ice issues that apparently plagued the Flyers' minor-league operation appear to have been resolved with an investment at the corner of 7th and Linden.

"It's not ... a smart statement. There's areas that need focus from all the young players and we have a great facility here for all of the off-ice work to get physically stronger," Murray said about the in-house advantages his team must embrace. "You're going to fine tune your game, going to have to figure out how to make the plays at the right time, to make decisions at the right time, to battle hard along the boards. That's where all these young guys need to continue to give their focus."

Three times I ventured to Glens Falls to cover the Phantoms with Murray behind the bench, and also viewed countless video of post-game "press conferences" taken just to the front of the cramped quarters that passed for the home locker room and just behind the din of the exit where friends, family and well-wishers stopped to greet players on both sides.

Win or lose, night after night, year after year, it appeared Murray was doing nothing but what he was obligated to do. That all changed two days ago. Murray was as detailed, expansive and effusive as he's going to get over his remarks which stretched for almost 10 minutes.

"That's management. That's the team. When you look at the teams in Glens Falls for five years, there were a lot of guys who were together. As Hexy said things got a little stale, it was time for a change and shook things up with new players," Murray related. "Plus, now we have draft picks coming out of junior. You're looking at the speed, the puck movement is much quicker, better this year than it has been in the last two years and that's a compliment to the back end. We've got younger, faster, quicker guys.

The Phantoms failed to qualify for the postseason in each of its five seasons in New York, and won a high of 37 games in 2011-12 before dumping Joe Paterson after one year in charge. That's not much worse than Philadelphia, which missed the playoffs twice and won exactly one postseason round since their Calder Cup title of 2005 was goosed by NHL talent waiting out a cancelled season and the late arrivals of two hot-shot junior prospects now out of the organization.

How the construction of a state-of-the-art arena is supposed to positively affect what goes on at ice level is up for debate. Still, if you consider confidence and positivity to be crucial, if not abstract, components of peak athletic performance, what we saw on Friday night is a step in the right direction. And if the spirits of your head coach are lifted, then that's got to trickle down to the manner in which he's entrusted to guide the next generation.

Murray wasn't all sweetness and light despite a victory which kept his record at Lehigh Valley unblemished.

"I hope we're not the same. We were loose. We were sloppy. That second period, our goaltender was the difference and we have to be much better," he lamented about bad habits from the opener not finding their way into the second portion of the home-and-home.

From all indications, the Phantoms did play a more consistent game on Saturday in Glens Falls, but still came up short in a 4-2 result which the Flames -- who were 0-3-1 coming in -- needed in a worse way than their opposition.

Murray's demeanor will probably darken a bit when he drags his team into arenas that have lost their initial gleam or never had it in the first place. The schedule makers were kind to the Phantoms Mark III, with only one set of three-in-a-row weekend sojourns through the middle of December thanks to more than a few open weeknight dates.

For a guy who began his coaching career in the league in a Baltimore venue which hasn't changed since he ran things 25 years ago, as far as the immediate future is concerned, win or lose, there really is no place like home.

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