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‘Yes,’ Matheson Burying His Past, Explodes onto Penguins Blue Line

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Matheson

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson had four takeaways Thursday night against the New York Islanders. If that sounds like a good night, consider that’s twice as many takeaways as top-pair defenseman Kris Letang has this season. To buttress the point, Mike Matheson was also on the ice for all four Penguins goals.

All in a night’s work.

Mike Matheson wasn’t just on the ice for the first three; he made a spiffy play to extend the play or create the play for all three. He registered just one assist, but there was little doubt Matheson owned the ice on Thursday night.

It was one of the most impressive individual efforts by a Penguins defenseman in a long time. Matheson is not only feeling the groove as he settles into his new digs in black and gold, but Matheson is burying the questions that rightfully dogged him after the past two seasons with the Florida Panthers.

PHN keeps in touch with multiple hockey people who are also close to Matheson. The Quebec native played his college hockey at Boston College. On Thursday night, PHN had this exchange with one former Matheson coach:

“Is he really THIS good?”

“Yes.”

No elaboration was needed. The simplicity spoke volumes of the man the coach still calls “Mikey,” who is creating offense from the Penguins blue line with explosive speed and aggressive thinking.

Thursday night, Matheson passed the puck to himself in the most unusual way. Matheson shot it off the end wall from the blue line and jumped into the slot for his own “rebound.” In the process, he scrambled New York’s structured defense and was able to slip past the first level of defense. No big deal.

“It was just kind of instinctual,” Matheson said.

The brilliant assist set up Teddy Blueger’s easy rebound tap in. But all eyes were still on Matheson, including the New York Islanders, as if to say–“Did he just do that?”

Since Matheson returned from a lower-body injury suffered in the second game of the season, the last five games have been a revelation. Skills and speed which may have been muted in Florida are at full volume in Pittsburgh. Confidence, which may have been rattled under Joel Quenneville (and a revolving door of other head coaches) in Florida, is now lifting Matheson

This is what many around Matheson and the Pittsburgh Penguins hoped to see.

“It was tough starting the year off with an injury, especially coming to a new team, hoping to make an impact and earn your teammates respect,” Matheson said. “…I’ve just been trying to build my game, each game by game.”

The Penguins, which have won three of their last four games and played increasingly well, can only hope.

It’s not as if Matheson didn’t bring a suitcase full of talent with the baggage he brought from Florida. The Florida Panthers were so enthralled after his rookie season that they rewarded him with an eight-year, $39 million contract on the eve of his sophomore campaign.

After this season, it will run for five more years.

“The (Penguins’) system is very clear. I think it’s an effective system. It allows for instinctual play as well,” Matheson said. “It complements the players on the team, and you can tell–when we put it together– … it turns into some pretty good-looking hockey.”

Mike Matheson, Florida

Around hockey, more than a few eyebrows raised when former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford took on Matheson’s contract without salary holdback. A struggling defenseman with six years left on a high-dollar contract isn’t exactly at the top of everyone’s wish list.

And Matheson’s first two games with the Penguins looked like a continuation of his Florida tenure. There were turnovers and trying too hard, which led to even more problems.

“Uh oh,” might have been on the lips of many.

But Matheson used the injury timeout well and absorbed the Penguins system. He hit the ground running, or skating, nearly two weeks ago and has been better in every game since. It culminated with the dynamic performance on Thursday night.

“I thought Mike had a real strong game on both sides of the puck. You can see his skating ability and how effective it is both defending and taking time and space from our opponents, and closing on people,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “And then, offensively, the ability to join the rush. The play he made on Teddy Blueger’s goal … You can see his mobility off that offensive blue line and how effective it can be.

Joining the rush, the same way. He can make an outlet pass, then he takes three or four hard strides, and he creates separation from the forecheck to be that fourth man or the second wave…”

It is a small sample size. There will be bad stretches and more good stretches, but Matheson is burying the past and giving the Pittsburgh Penguins a weapon on the blue line at a most opportune time when the Penguins need one.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Moe Ali
Moe Ali
7 months ago

Mike Matheson is an offensively gifted player. For reasons unknown, Florida is not where he is now, so that’s a good thing for Pittsburgh. Best of luck and performance to Mikey on that Pens blue line

Iwasiam
7 months ago

I noticed Trotz sent Martin out towards the end to shake Matheson up a little and to be ready for next game.
At the beginning they went right after Tanev cause how good he was last game.
If their going after our energy and guys playing well that means Geno and Letang are safe.

Eric
Eric
7 months ago
Reply to  Iwasiam

Martin had issue with the MM hit on Barzel. Nothing more.

Ricardo58
Ricardo58
7 months ago

5’s play was spectacular last night! 35 as well. I’ll use my life lessons and temper my enthusiasm from this small sample before proclaiming he is back though. Consistency night in and night out by 5 will determine that or not. I’m looking forward to the next game to see if the NYI try to play a heavy game and the response from the Pens. Rust and Zucker played a strong, physical game too! Go Pens.

Eric
Eric
7 months ago

easy now! It’s only 1 game. I’m optimistic too, but it’s one game.

Ether
Ether
7 months ago
Reply to  Eric

Been building for a number of games if you have been watching. I stood up for him early and glad I did against the haters. He has been best D-man for last 5 or so. And is the best skater on the team by quite a bit!

Eric
Eric
7 months ago
Reply to  Ether

See the same thing you do! Giving hi. The benefit of the doubt. Still small sample size. Keeping my finger crossed. His skating ability puts letang to shame. Let’s see if can can remain disciplined and be defensively responsible.

David Heyl
David Heyl
7 months ago

Best way to improve # 1 PP put 5 out there, it cannot get worse. The 5 on 3 was an exhibition of 10 passes before the first shot attempt. With Malkin & Letang out there the defensive box only needs to worry about the other 3 Pens. 58 & 71 are the best players on the PK for the other team. They keep the PP on the perimeter!!

Iwasiam
7 months ago
Reply to  David Heyl

I hear ya. Im actually nervous when Geno handles the puck near the blue line kind of like when Flower would go after the puck behind the net….id keep saying no no no dont

Jackmccrory
Jackmccrory
7 months ago

Like I said the other day 5 needs to supplant 58 on PP1 and 71 needs to stay on the bench.

Dean
Dean
7 months ago

Just imagine if Marino could get back to last year’s play. Marino was +3 in the last 2 games, including the loss to Washington, because of Matheson

Lars Erik Nelson
Lars Erik Nelson
7 months ago

Matheson controlled the game and has been getting better every game since his injury. It will seem like a steal if he plays this well for the rest of his contract. He will be the #1 defenseman getting paid like a second-pair guy. Suddenly, our defense does not look like the liability that everyone said it would be at the beginning of the season with Matheson and the emergence of POJ. If Jarry plays better and better, then what we need is some better players on our 4th line, which is a small thing to ask for another cup run.… Read more »

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