|John Curry of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, has a 9-4-1 record, leading the league with a 1.86 GAA.
The insight came at the tail end of a 5-3 loss to Norfolk on Dec. 8. Curry had been pulled for an extra skater. When the Admirals clinched the game with an empty-netter, Richards looked down and saw Curry visibly sad.
“To me, it showed me the passion of him,’’ Richards recalled. “We lost the game. I believe he felt responsible. As a coach, that’s what you want. Here’s a guy who perceives he always has to prove himself.’’
In Curry’s world, it’s more fact than perception. Toss out his 9-4-1 record, league-leading 1.85 goals-against average and his .921 save percentage. In his eyes, he’s still a player who put his team in position to lose that game to Norfolk.
“It was a frustrating game for me. The team was in need of goaltending, but I wasn’t able to give it to them,’’ he said almost spitting out the words seven weeks later. “It was an expectation of mine, if I was given an opportunity, I’d do something with it. The last thing I can do is be complacent about, what, 14 games in the American Hockey League.’’
Curry hasn’t been alone in trying to figure himself out. Asked why Curry has gotten off to such a fast start, Pittsburgh goalie coach Gilles Meloche simply answers, “To tell you the truth, I’m still trying to figure it out.’’
Curry arrived at Boston University in 2003-04 as a recruited walk-on and played in one game as a freshman. Ho-hum. By the time his sophomore season got going, he was the starter. As a senior he put up eye-catching stats (2.01, .928), was named Hockey East player of the year and was a Hobey Baker finalist.
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“Going into BU, I had very little expectations,’’ Curry said. “That being said, I like being the underdog. I like to be able to prove myself, but not with any kind of animosity. What I can control is just working hard.’’
Curry’s days of sneaking up on people may be coming to a close. He was signed as an undrafted free agent, one who started out even deeper in the shadows than usual. First, the organization already had a rookie hotshot out of college, Notre Dame’s David Brown. Secondly, Curry was coming off a hip injury and had a poor training camp.
“He didn’t get a lot of action, because he wasn’t ready for American League hockey,’’ Richards said.
Since Ty Conklin was recalled to Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, an admittedly desperate Curry went into his familiar survival mode mentality. He and Brown turned to the business of helping Wilkes-Barre/Scranton avoid the potential perils of relying on two rookie goalies.
“There’s definitely pressure. That’s one of the things that drives me more. It comes from knowing what the expectations are for being an NHL goalie,’’ Curry said. “I’ve learned not to ever be surprised. If you step back and take a look at the big picture, sometimes it does surprise you a little. I like to stay in the moment.’’
But it seems that Curry had to temporarily leave North America to start taking shape as an AHL goalie. Richards points to Curry’s excellent play with the United States’ entry at November’s Deutschland Cup in Germany as a turning point in Curry’s confidence.
“I just said, this kid looks like he’s ready to play in the American Hockey League,’’ said Tom Fitzgerald, director of player development for the Penguins and an assistant coach for the U.S. team. “He looked like the kid I saw at BU. When he got back from there and played well, not only did his coaches have confidence, his teammates had confidence. It isn’t a coincidence that this team has been on a roll since mid-December, and John has been a big part of that.’’
Curry was nearly unbeatable in earning league rookie of the month honors for December, going 4-1-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average, a .939 save percentage and one shutout in six starts. And if it’s true that a team takes on the personality of its goalie, then it’s little wonder why these Penguins lean toward the scrappy side when Curry slides between the pipes.
“He’s a fighter. Whatever he puts his mind to, he does,’’ Meloche said. “He’s kind of a scrambler (in terms of style). We’re trying to cut that down a little bit, because in the NHL scramblers don’t last too long. I don’t worry too much about the size (5-foot-11). As long as he can stop the puck, that’s my main concern.’’
Another one of Curry’s assets is his perspective. As quickly as he came out of nowhere, he knows there’s another young netminder out there waiting to push him off center stage.
“The organization gives you support. They give you an opportunity to develop,’’ he said. “All I wanted after school was for a team to give me an opportunity. I wasn’t heavily sought-after. From there, they (Pittsburgh) said, we’ll see how it goes. They didn’t expect me to develop fast. After that, it was up to me. With goaltending, it’s what have you done for me lately. They look for more than just stats.’’
So, too, does Curry. Asked what would finally make him feel even the slightest bit satisfied, he aimed no lower than the top.
“I’ve never been happy with where I am. Until you are MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there is always room to improve,’’ he said. “The minute you get happy with where you are, you get lazy and develop bad habits. You’re not happy until you’ve done it all. I don’t think I would be until my career is over.’’