In hockey, as in life, timing is everything. Matt Moulson is a perfect example.
The New York Islanders' forward is one of those guys who's easy to overlook. He's not especially big, not especially fast and doesn't have the kind of big shot that makes goaltenders worry every time he touches the puck. He played in college at Cornell, was a ninth-round draft pick (by the Pittsburgh Penguins) that was never signed and almost saw his NHL dreams expire four years ago when the Los Angeles Kings let him walk away.
Luckily for the Islanders, they had made John Tavares the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft a few days before Moulson became a free agent.
ISLANDERS 30 IN 15 RELATED STORIES
"John was drafted and I became a free agent on July 1," Moulson told NHL.com. "The Islanders were one of the teams I talked to, and I told Johnny about it right away. It just seemed like it would be a good fit for me. I had some fortunate bounces in training camp and made the team. It just seemed like it was the right place, right time for me. I gained confidence through that training camp playing with Johnny and it's been great ever since."
Then-Islanders coach Scott Gordon put Moulson on Tavares' left wing, where he's remained throughout all but a handful of games during his first four NHL seasons. The results have been more than even Moulson or the Islanders could have imagined: He reached the 30-goal mark in his first three seasons on Long Island and then put up 15 goals and 44 points in 47 games in 2012-13, placing him in the top-25 in NHL scoring for the second straight season.
Unlike Tavares, who's been a star almost since he first put on a pair of skates, Moulson has flown under the radar, something that puzzles his friend and linemate.
"He's really underrated in a lot of areas of the game," Tavares told NHL.com. "I think he's a good two-way player. He blocks a lot of shots. He's really good at getting the puck out of his own end. He's smart and he's a responsible player. It's not like he's cheating all over the ice to score 30 goals.
"I think that's just kind of the way Matt's career's gone. He's always had to overcome a lot, and it's always motivated him and pushed him. He's always been a guy that's under the radar."
Part of Moulson's problem could be that he was regarded by many as nothing more than Tavares' wingman, a player whose success was due to who he was playing with rather than his own skills. Another reason is a lot of Moulson's goals aren't exactly picturesque.
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 44
SOG: 154 | +/-: -3
"When I was young, my dad taught me to get to the front of the net," Moulson said. "I always enjoyed scoring those garbage goals. Some guys like scoring the highlight-reel goals; I don't think I have a highlight-reel goal to my name. I'll take one off my backside the same as I will a top-corner shot. I was always taught that [the front of the net] is where the goals are scored."
Moulson's willingness to get to the front of the net has helped him work well with Tavares. The two combined for 91 points last season, more than all but eight other two-man combinations. Moulson, usually more of a shooter than a passer, assisted on 20 of Tavares' 28 goals; Tavares had an assist on 10 of Moulson's 15. Both have 112 goals as an Islander, and in five of the last six games of the 2012-13 season in which Moulson scored a goal, Tavares had one as well.
"I think we know how the other one plays very well. He knows what I do. I know what he wants to do," Moulson said. "We read off each other well. Our game-play styles seem to mesh well together."
Tavares was named captain of the Islanders earlier this month, a decision that surprised no one who has seen his work ethic and intensity both on and off the ice, least of all Moulson.
"He works extremely hard and continues to get better every day," Moulson said. "He leads a lot by example in what he does. When you see someone like that who's your best player and he's working on things all the time, it's definitely motivating [you] to get off your butt and do some stuff as well."
However, Tavares said Moulson's drive to make the NHL and the effort he puts into staying there have been an inspiration to him as well.
"I think his work ethic as well has been really good for me," he said. "I realize what he did to get here, and I think it's rubbed off somewhat as well and how driven he is and the motivation to be an NHL player and to prove a lot of people wrong … he's been a great example for me.
"He's overcome so much adversity, and when I face some adversity, I realize it's really not as bad as maybe you think. It's been a lot of fun together, and hopefully this journey keeps going."