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?”
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.