Five minutes into the second period, Mike Matheson skated laterally on the offensive blue line. An on-coming defender pressured him, but Matheson’s quick hesitation and burst of speed created an open shooting lane. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman unleashed a hard wrist shot in full stride, which echoed off goalie Vitek Vanecek’s pads.
The Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 on Sunday, and Matheson was one of the standout performers.
To complete the second-period shift, Matheson broke up the Washington rush at center ice, then finished the shift when used his body to shield the puck and skate it out of the Penguins zone. The video of the shift is at the bottom of the column, but let’s first go through the details of Matheson’s story.
It is Matheson’s second chance the make a first impression after the Penguins acquired him from the Florida Panthers for Patric Hornqvist in October. The first couple of games this season were not Matheson’s best. He struggled against Philadelphia and had a hand in a few straight goals-against as the Penguins started 0-2-0.
Actually, the first two games were far too similar to his struggles in Florida over the past two seasons and the reason Florida was willing to cut bait with the once-prized young defenseman to whom they dished an eight-year contract after his rookie season.
“I’m a lot more comfortable. I feel like things are happening more naturally than a the beginning of the year,” Matheson said. “Once you get to a point where the systems are a little more natural and instinctual, it flows a lot better…”
As Penguins fans hold their breath, Matheson is flashing the talent which no one questioned, combined with a level of decision making everyone hoped to see.
Mike Matheson Highlights
Watch the Pittsburgh Penguins first goal on Sunday. Here’s a quick diagram of the give-and-go between Matheson and Sidney Crosby. Watch how quickly Matheson bolts forward and with such speed that Washington didn’t have a chance to react. That created separation, and he had time to make a play–at full speed. Diagram, then watch the speed.
PHN regularly speaks with a myriad of hockey people, including a couple who are closely connected to Matheson. I’ll share a quick convo that occurred during the game on Sunday.
“If Mikey can release himself from the blue line more often we could see more of those plays,” our source said.
Matheson’s stat line has been a breath of fresh air for the Penguins’ beleaguered blue line. First, we had the P-O Joseph break out. Now, we’ve got Matheson busting loose, which is arguably the more urgent because he is signed for five years beyond this season at an $4.8 million AAV.
If this doesn’t work, the Pittsburgh Penguins are on the hook for a lot of money. And perhaps that’s why fans were so excited. PHN graded Matheson an A+ on Thursday night. In his third game back from the IR, PHN again dished an A for Matheson’s aggressive performance.
“He’s getting more familiar with how we’re trying to play every day. I think his confidence is growing. I think he made some really nice plays out there (Sunday),” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s defending hard for us. I thought he made a great play on (Rust’s) goal … It just shows you what he is capable of.”
On a team that can maddeningly pass up shots, Mike Matheson is looking for ways to shoot. And he is succeeding. Sunday he had three shots on net. Thursday night, Matheson had three on net, six blocked, and one miss. Matheson had two SOGs, two blocked, and two misses in his first game back after an eight-game absence.
I’ll do the math for you. That’s eight shots on goal, eight shots that were blocked, and three misses in three games.
By comparison, top defenseman Kris Letang has six shots on net, three that were blocked and two misses.
When we asked fans on social media who they wanted to talk about today, Matheson was the clear winner. That is a long way from the groans and unease upon his arrival and his first two games.
It’s only been three A+ games, but they’ve been an important reversal from the first two games and a chance for Matheson to make a first impression, again.
Now, here’s that shift that shows the little things; a quick hesitation to create a shot on goal, breaking up the rush at the red line, then skating the puck out of trouble behind the net. TV didn’t do justice to his little juke move.