CHARLOTTE — Two weeks ago tonight, Drayson Bowman was helping the Carolina Hurricanes rip the Atlanta Thrashers 6-1, excited and convinced he would soon be in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Justin Faulk was in St. Paul, Minn., a freshman defenseman for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, excited about playing in the NCAA championship game the next day against Michigan in the "Frozen Four."
As for Charlotte Checkers goaltender Mike Murphy, he wasn't sure when he would be playing hockey again. A concussion had sidelined him indefinitely, leaving him caught up in that fog of uncertainty that comes with the head injury.
That the three would converge in Charlotte on Wednesday, in the American Hockey League's Calder Cup playoffs, helping the Checkers beat the Hershey Bears, was the last thing they had in mind. But there they were, together in the Checkers lineup as Charlotte won 3-2 at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Murphy, quick in the net, had 35 saves, some acrobatic. Bowman assisted on Nick Dodge's winning goal, and Faulk made his first professional game memorable as the Checkers evened the first-round series 2-2 against the AHL's defending champions.
"This," Murphy said, "is the best feeling in the world."
Murphy, 22, was out for three and a half weeks, since he was tripped ("slewfooted," he said) behind the net and banged his head against the boards in a March 20 road game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. At the time, he had a 21-11-3 record and led the Checkers with a 2.53 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
"Ask any hockey player, and it's one of the worst feelings," Murphy said of sitting out. "I couldn't go on the road with the team. With a concussion, with the noise and the brightness of the games, they wanted me to just sit at home.
"I kept taking concussion tests and kept failing. The doctor would say, 'All right, you've got another week off.' You keep praying you'll pass the next one. It's extremely tough."
Returning to the lineup Tuesday for Game 3 against the Bears, Murphy was a hard-luck loser as the Checkers fell 3-2. But coach Jeff Daniels liked what he saw and had him back in net Wednesday rather than Justin Pogge.
"I thought Murph responded well two games in a row after being off an extended period of time," Daniels said. "He's a competitor. He battles in there."
Bowman didn't expect to be around for either game. After the Canes' romp over the Thrashers two weeks ago, they needed only to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning at home the next night to secure the final playoff berth in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
Do that and Bowman, a rookie forward, would be making his first Stanley Cup appearance. Instead, the Canes were thumped 6-2 in their final game, the New York Rangers went to the playoffs instead, and Bowman went back to the Checkers.
"That was tough, to lose that game," Bowman said. 'We got down 3-0 early, and as bad as it sounds, I really didn't want to come back here because I'd rather have been in the playoffs up there.
"I don't think anybody would argue with that. It took a couple of days to get over that."
Bowman got over it, returned to Charlotte and threw himself back into the Calder Cup fight.
"He was very professional about it," Daniels said. "The message, when he got sent down, was to come here and play hard. He's a guy who adds a lot to our lineup."
And so did Faulk. The Bulldogs topped the Wolverines 3-2 in overtime to claim the school's first NCAA hockey title, and Faulk soon faced a decision: return to college for his sophomore year or begin his professional career.
Faulk, 19, was a second-round draft pick by the Hurricanes (37th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. They were eager to get him signed and get him to Charlotte, their AHL affiliate.
"You definitely don't like to leave a team, especially when you're a freshman," Faulk said Wednesday. "But when you're faced with either playing pro hockey or college hockey, it's always a dream to play pro hockey, and it's tough to turn down."
Faulk didn't, agreeing to a three-year, entry-level contract with Carolina that begins next season.
Joining the Checkers this week on an amateur tryout contract, he sat out Game 3 against the Bears. But Faulk was on the ice for extended minutes Wednesday in Game 4, looking comfortable, banging bodies, winning puck battles, moving the puck and playing effectively.
"I liked him," Daniels said, smiling. "I thought he handled it real well, and as the game went on I think we had a lot more confidence in him. He played a lot of minutes and didn't look out of place at all."
Faulk, for his part, said the nerves were jangling a bit. But defenseman Bryan Rodney, the Checkers captain who was paired with Faulk part of the game, came away impressed.
"I thought he played well," Rodney said. "Obviously he thrives in big games."
Game 4 was a big one for the Checkers. And for Murphy, who picked up his first playoff victory.
"It was a huge game for me to feel good in the net again," he said. "It has been tough, but there are rollercoaster rides in hockey."
For Murphy, Bowman and Faulk, it has been some ride.
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