By Roy Lang III
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John DeCaro isn't embarrassed to admit he's missed Ken Carroll.
As a friend, as a teammate, as a mentor.
The pair used to juggle No. 1 and No. 1a goaltending responsibilities and set Central Hockey League records in the process. Given Carroll's decade of dominance along the Red River, DeCaro, despite two Most Outstanding Goaltender honors, often played in Carroll's shadow.
But when Carroll retired following last season, contrary to popular belief, DeCaro didn't quickly slam the door behind the legend. Did he want to be the Mudbugs' clear-cut No. 1? Of course. What competitive athlete wouldn't?
DeCaro got his wish — Scott Muscutt handed the Washington native the keys to the franchise. However, the transition has been tumultuous. Although the Mudbugs (22-17-2) currently reside in second place in the Berry Conference, DeCaro has endured the worst slump of his career and backup goaltender Brian Foster is on pace to set franchise records — and not good ones.
"I couldn't pinpoint anything," DeCaro said. "It's the first time I've struggled like this in my entire pro career, and the first time I had to deal with Kenny not being around every day to work on stuff or in the locker room next to you "' the first time I look over and it's not him.
"(Ken Carroll) has been one of the most important people in my pro career."
Carroll returned Wednesday. Not to play, but to consult the tandem of DeCaro and rookie Brian Foster.
"I kick myself for waiting this long, but I didn't want to step on toes," Carroll said. "It's their team; I don't play there anymore."
Carroll was welcomed back with open arms. He worked with the netminders on Wednesday and Thursday.
"He's unbelievable that guy," DeCaro, 28, said of Carroll. "He can take any situation and turn it into a positive somehow. Sometimes you need a third party, another set of eyes. He didn't change anything, just threw out advice and some pointers. It was unreal and valuable."
The Mudbugs' goalies will try to build on Tuesday's victory over Texas and Carroll's tutelage as they begin a doubleheader against the CHL's bottom feeder, Fort Wayne (13-18-5,) tonight at CenturyTel Center.
"I thought it was great," head coach Scott Muscutt said of the Carroll experiment. "I thought both of our goaltenders enjoyed having Kenny here and both thought better about where they are."
DeCaro snapped a personal three-game losing streak Tuesday.
"This time of the year, there is always a lull — you know you're getting tired and you stop doing the little things that make you successful," Carroll said.
Carroll serves as a junior hockey coach in the Dallas area and quickly became a staple as a practice goaltender for the Dallas Stars.
The 34-year-old who played nine years with the Mudbugs says his game as improved since skating with the NHL and seeing the work ethic of goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft.
But the fundaments are just a small part of goaltending. Carroll's experience could be his biggest asset.
"Goaltending is 70 percent mental, 30 percent goaltending," Carroll said. "What they're going through right now, a majority of it is mental. Both are quality goaltenders. Some tough luck and bad bounces weigh on your confidence."
Foster, a rookie and fifth-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2005, has dropped six straight decisions and carries a 4.59 goals-against average and .836 save percentage during that period.
Foster's current goals-against average (3.39) for the season and .881 save percentage would set record highs for Mudbugs goaltenders with regular playing time.
DeCaro believes the numbers are misleading.
"He has so much talent and skill," DeCaro said. "Once he figures it out, he's going to be a real good goalie."
One thing Carroll didn't advise for DeCaro was to feel like he had to assume Carroll's former role of mentor.
"Not at this time," said Carroll, who will be in town for this weekend's set against the Komets. "At this point, putting 100 percent on either one of them isn't fair.
When you're struggling, the last thing you want to hear is 'Yea, you have to do more.' You grip your stick tighter and start thinking more.
"They need to do what they do best and that's stopping the puck."
Steve Crampton will begin a two-game suspension for his third-period ruckus Tuesday. Four other Mudbugs are out and captain Brett Smith and defenseman Clay Plume are questionable. However, help is on the way from the Lafayette IceGators of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The Mudbugs will add Beau McLaughlin, a 6-foot, 188-pound forward. He has 26 goals (second-best in the SPHL) and 18 assists for the IceGators this season.
"Hopefully he'll help us through the weekend," Muscutt said of McLaughlin.