As time wound down in the first period of Temple ice hockey’s matchup with Penn State on Sept. 30, junior goalie Chris Mullen was busy making save after save.
As the Ice Lions put a flurry of shots on the first-year starter in the closing seconds of the period, Mullen didn’t relent, making several acrobatic stops in succession to preserve the 1–1 score and skated off the ice to thundering applause from the Temple supporters after the horn sounded.
The man behind the mask had just made a statement that he was Temple’s No. 1 goalie.
“[Mullen] solidified his situation [last weekend],” coach Jerry Roberts said. “We want to have someone solid and reliable but we want to have that leadership that a starting goalie has to have, and he’s done that. He’s bailed us out when we needed him to and he’s done a lot more than what we thought he was capable of doing.”
Having backed up former Owl Will Neifeld for two seasons, Mullen was forced to watch as Neifeld blossomed into Temple’s best goalie in years. After Neifeld left the team for personal reasons at the end of last season, Mullen has taken the reins in stride and hasn’t looked back.
For Mullen, going from backup to starter has been a natural transition.
“I feel like it’s been pretty smooth,” Mullen said. “We started off with big games off the bat with [Lehigh University] and right with [Montclair State University] and Penn State too. Those were huge games for us. [The transition] had to be smooth and it was. I feel like I’ve played pretty well.”
Mullen made a name for himself in the Montclair State and Penn State games. He saved 39 of 43 shots against Montclair and then saved 32 of 36 shots that came his way against a juggernaut of a Penn State offense.
Many of his bigger saves came in the first periods of both games, including the end of that first period against Penn State.
“That gives you the confidence and boost that you need in games like that,” Mullen said. “To start like that, you feel a lot more comfortable in the net and you feel like you’re in control.”
“Starting off with that big win against Montclair, that was huge for my confidence,” Mullen added. “Unfortunately, we didn’t beat Penn State, but we put ourselves in a position to win and hopefully we’ll beat them next time.”
While physicality is important for the goalie, it’s been the mental aspect of Mullen’s game that has impressed his coach.
“He’s been great,” Roberts said. “He’s the man in control out there and he’s playing the way you’d expect an upperclassman starter to play. Mentality and those intangibles are so important for a goalie and he’s brought them to the rink every single night.”
Mullen said he has been juggling the typical roles of a goalie with the new responsibilities he inherited this year.
“The biggest thing [for a goalie] is to stay focused on the puck even if it’s down on the other end,” Mullen said. “It’s big knowing where everybody is.”
“Another big thing for me has been on power plays and stuff calling out different formations and defensive setups we have to do,” Mullen added. “That was something new for me but I think I’m getting a handle of it.”
Another big aspect of a goalie’s game is that of the guys playing in front of them. It’s been the combination of Mullen and his defensive core that has opened the doors to a more aggressive style of defense, Roberts said.
“They’ve played incredibly well together,” Roberts said. “[The defense] wants to play for him and they want to help him out and make sure they’re not letting him down.”
“Because [Mullen] has been so reliable, he allows our defense to take more chances and be a little more aggressive because he can bail them out,” Roberts said. “It causes them to make better plays because they know if they do something bad he’s going to be there…We had that with [Neifeld] and now we know we have that in Mullen.”
Mullen said he understands the importance of not only good communication and play, but also of the chemistry that a defense and goalie combination has to have.
“The guys have been great,” Mullen said. “There have been a couple games that they’ve bailed me out a few times and overall we’re meshing really well this year. Everybody’s getting along and playing really well.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @daParent93.