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Taking it all in...

by John Kopp / Philadelphia Flyers
Just several shifts into his NHL debut, Matt Read found himself fighting for a loose puck along the boards at TD Garden as the Flyers opened the season against the Boston Bruins.

For a lifelong hockey player, the task was hardly noteworthy. But given the circumstances, the moment proved very surreal.

Battling Read in the corner was former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. All-6-9 and 255 pounds of him.

“I came out with puck, somehow,” recalled Read, who checks in at a modest 5-10 and 185 pounds. “I got back to the bench and kind of replayed it in my mind. I was like, ‘Holy cow, what is this? What’s going on here?’

“That’s one of the earlier (moments) that woke me up, like, ‘Holy cow, this is pretty neat.’”

The rookie momentarily may have been star-struck by Chara, a five-time All-Star, but nothing about Read’s season has indicated he doesn’t belong.

The right winger has scored 14 points and ranks second on the team with a plus-nine rating. Read has scored nine goals, including two game-winners and a shorthanded penalty shot. Those statistics each rank high among rookies and have pushed Read into early conversations for the Calder Trophy, hockey’s rookie of the year award.

Read’s candidacy was bolstered by a five-game goal-scoring streak earlier this month, the longest such streak by a Flyers rookie since Mikael Renberg scored in six straight games in 1994.

Read, 25, said he didn’t do anything differently during that stretch and credited his linemates for his success.

“They’re the ones that make it so much easier out there on the ice,” Read said. “Just playing with good guys makes it easier for me. I’d say most of (my goals) are just being at the right spot at the right time and just gripping the stick as hard as you can to make sure you put it in.”

Despite his recent scoring spate, Read’s most important attribute might be his versatility. He has spent significant time on both the penalty kill and the power play, played on a number of lines and taken the occasional faceoff.

For a rookie, he’s shouldering a lot of responsibilities. Just months ago, Read didn’t know whether he’d start the season with the Flyers or be sent to the Phantoms for more seasoning. He did know that the Flyers needed penalty killers and saw that as an opportunity to showcase his talents.

“They told me that in the summer that they lost some penalty killers and they need someone to step up as a penalty killer,” Read said. “I guess I knew if I made the team they were going to give me a shot and if I made the best of my opportunities I would stay there, but if I wasn’t good I would be off, for sure.

“You just work as hard as you can and you got to be in the right spot. I’ve been a penalty killer my whole life and all four years at school. I think it comes a little natural for me. Certainly they give you the opportunity out there and the more you’re out there, the more comfortable you get.”

While Read has helped the Flyers kill 83.5 percent of their penalties, he’s also been one of their best two-way forwards during even-strength situations. He hasn’t finished a game with a negative rating since Oct. 26, a string of 11 contests.

Read has done that while playing on various line combinations. As for juggling lines, Read said it’s important to know his teammates’ tendencies and adjust accordingly.

“If I’m playing with Max Talbot, I know he’s going to be the first guy in the corner and he’s going to get the puck,” Read said. “If you’re playing with other guys, you’re now that guy, so you’ve got to be as versatile as you can. … You’ve got to be the filler for the line and do the best you can to make that line produce goals or be a plus-player that game.”

Twenty games into his NHL career, Read has accomplished that, drawing attention from around the league. Some hockey pundits have named Read an early-season contender for the Calder Trophy, a distinction Read said he tries to ignore.

“It’s cool to get mentioned in stuff like that, but I think it’s a long season,” Read said. “If you worry about all of that stuff, all the off-ice stuff, it’s going to get to your head and you’re not going to be playing well. I try to put it on the back-burners and just worry about every game and every practice to be the best I can be.”

While some rookies garner great anticipation, that wasn’t the case with Read, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Flyers last March.

Read spent four seasons playing collegiate hockey at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, where he helped the Beavers to the 2009 Frozen Four. He played a quick 11 games with the Phantoms last spring before a strong preseason earned him a roster spot with the Flyers.

Given that he was still playing collegiate hockey at this time last year, Read said life in the NHL has been surreal at times. The season has passed quickly, he said.

“There’s days that you’re like, ‘Holy cow, this is the NHL, this is the real deal,’ and then there’s days where you feel settled in and a lot more comfortable,” Read said. “There’s certainly days where you grip the stick a little bit more and you realize that you’re playing against the New York Rangers or you’re playing against somebody that’s a big name, (Alex) Ovechkin or (Sidney) Crosby or someone out there.”

Read had one of those days Nov. 21, when the NHL named him its third star of the week for scoring four goals in three games, including a game-winning tally with 18.6 seconds remaining in regulation in the Flyers’ 2-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes.

“I don’t even know if that’s hit me yet,” Read said. “It’s pretty interesting and pretty neat that I was recognized for having a good week. There’s so many good guys in the NHL, I feel good I got it. It’s an honor. But I still catch myself (thinking), ‘What just happened?’”
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