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Matheson makes jump from AHL to Panthers

Defenseman adds to Florida's young talent

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Defenseman Michael Matheson is the latest piece in the Florida Panthers' puzzle.

The Panthers recalled Matheson from the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League last Friday and he made his NHL debut the next day in a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets at BB&T Center. The 21-year-old played 14:47 in a pairing with veteran Steven Kampfer.

Matheson's recall was the latest step in a journey to South Florida that officially began with his selection in the first round (No. 23) of the 2012 NHL Draft.

After three seasons at Boston College, Matheson turned pro at the end of last season. This season, with a strong Portland team battling for positioning in the competitive Atlantic Division, Matheson took on a regular role on a deep blue line. In 43 games with the Pirates, he has five goals and nine assists.

Matheson also played five AHL games at the end of last season.

"That was a great opportunity to be able to do that," Matheson said. "It made a really big difference [for] this [season], especially in training camp, just being able to know that even though it was only five games, you had played some pro hockey. It gave me a bit of confidence that I belonged in training camp.

"[Turning pro] was definitely a tough decision because I enjoyed my time at Boston College so much. It was definitely hard to take that next step knowing that I would never be able to go back and spend the time that I did while I was there. But I thought that at the point I was at, it was the smartest decision for me, for my hockey career. ... I felt like I needed a new challenge."

He then moved on to the AHL, a league that has tested many young defensemen including Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and P.K. Subban. Although Matheson said he has been able to deal with the speed of the AHL game, there has been a lot else to handle.

"I don't think that I would have been able to have my game progress [in college] as much as it has during this first half of the [season] in pro hockey," Matheson said. "I'd say the structure and the way the game is played is much different [than college hockey], and that has been the area of adjustment for me.

"You're playing against much better players, much smarter players. [Pro hockey] doesn't leave any room for mistakes as much as college does."

Matheson acknowledged that he had a reputation as an offensive defenseman whose defensive game needed work, but he has made becoming a well-rounded player his priority.

"I'd like to solidify that area of my game," Matheson said. "I think that in the past few years I've been able to make strides in those areas today. I used to be a high-risk, high-reward type of guy, and I think that I have been able to work on that pretty well the past few years [with] the coaches that I have had."

Panthers coach Gerard Gallant is dealing with injuries and the duration of Matheson's stint in Florida remains to be seen. But if and when Matheson returns to Portland, he will be jumping into race to the AHL playoffs.

Occupying third place in the Atlantic Division, the Pirates have managed to survive a season-high seven-game road trip (3-2-1-0) that ends this week. Portland is nine points out of first place, but also must fend off the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Hartford Wolf Pack and Providence Bruins.

Player development is paramount for NHL teams in the salary cap era. As a part of that process, Florida management insulated Matheson and a lot of his young teammates with a strong leadership core. From veteran goaltender Mike McKenna to captain Brent Regner to a well-balanced group of forwards, Matheson has been able to develop amid a stable environment.

That's why when the Pirates endured early-season struggles, panic did not set inside the dressing room.

"It almost surprised me how positive everyone stayed," said Matheson, who captained Boston College last season. "We would come off a really tough weekend, and at the next practice it was as if everybody had pushed it out of their minds and very calmly approached the next week. ... It was like, 'We have this to work on. Let's work on it.'

"I think that was one thing that I really did notice about the team. We clearly have really good leadership and guys on this team that are professional hockey players on and off the ice. They don't get rattled by a lot of things, and they just go about their business."

ON THE BRINK

Similarly to Matheson, Texas Stars defenseman Esa Lindell might not spend much time in the AHL.

After three seasons in Finland's Liiga, Lindell headed to the AHL at the end of last season. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Lindell has anchored the Texas blue line, providing defensive stability for the run-and-gun Stars.

But with a big point shot, Lindell has also contributed offensively with 10 goals and 21 assists in 54 games. Along the way, the 21-year-old made his NHL debut with the Dallas Stars, playing in four games before returning to Texas.

How close is Lindell, a third-round selection (No. 74) in 2012, to full-time duty in Dallas?

"He's pretty close," Texas coach Derek Laxdal said. "He is just one of those defenseman that you don't notice him, but at the end of the night he has a goal, an assist, heavy minutes. He's a big, strong, heavy player. ... We expect him to be a future defenseman for the Dallas Stars."

AHL GAME OF THE WEEK

The Pacific Division's top two teams start a two-game series this weekend when Texas hosts the Ontario Reign. The Reign continues a five-game road trip atop the Pacific Division. Goaltender Peter Budaj is back from his recall to the Los Angeles Kings and helped the Reign end the Stars' six-game winning streak last Friday at Ontario. Texas is second in the AHL with 3.74 goals per game while Ontario's 1.96 goals-against per game is best in the league. The series, which starts Friday, begins a five-game homestand for the Stars.

WITH HONORS

Rochester Americans goaltender Linus Ullmark was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. He saved 94 of 97 shots in two wins that pushed Rochester closer to a playoff spot in the North Division.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Seth Griffith of the Providence Bruins tied Hershey Bears forward Chris Bourque for the AHL scoring lead with 57 points (22 goals, 34 assists). Griffith's five-point game (two goals, three assists) helped the Bruins to a 6-3 win at Hershey on Sunday. Griffith missed most of training camp and the first two weeks of the season because of an injury, but has 18 goals and 39 assists in 43 games for the high-powered Providence offense. ... Albany Devils veteran forward Mike Sislo took over the AHL lead in goals with 25. He has a seven-game goal streak. ... Budaj's 1.58 GAA and 26 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His .935 save percentage, eight shutouts and 2,463 minutes also lead the AHL.

ON THE MOVE

San Antonio Rampage center Colin Smith is on his way to the Toronto Marlies. He has 13 goals and 21 assists in 54 games with San Antonio and was acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade for forward Shawn Matthias on Sunday. ... Charlotte Checkers goaltender Daniel Altshuller made stops in three leagues this past week. The Carolina Hurricanes recalled him to back up Eddie Lack on Feb. 16 before sending him to the ECHL the next day. Altshuller played one game with Florida of the ECHL before he was recalled to the Charlotte Checkers after an injury to goaltender Drew MacIntyre. Altshuller had 35 saves in a 3-2 shootout loss at the Chicago Wolves this past Sunday.

AROUND THE AHL

Providence rookie Frank Vatrano has 23 goals in 22 games His 10-game point streak (11 goals, eight assists) ended last weekend. ... A 3-2 loss at Hartford on Feb. 17 stopped Providence's 16-game point streak, the longest in the AHL this season. ... Charlotte ended a 10-game losing streak Friday in a win at the Grand Rapids Griffins but has lost 12 of its past 13 games and fallen below the playoff line. ... The Syracuse Crunch ended a nine-game losing streak last week, but lost 6-2 at home against Rochester on Saturday and have losses in 10 of their past 11 games. They remain seven points out of a playoff spot. ... Bridgeport lost in regulation Sunday for the first time since Jan. 17, ending an 11-game point streak. ... The Marlies swept two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference at home during the weekend. They scored four times in the third period against top goaltending prospect Matt Murray in a 4-2 win against the Eastern Conference's second-ranked team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, last Friday. The next day, they defeated Portland 3-1. At 84 points, Toronto is on pace for 120 points; the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers' 124 points is the AHL record for a season, but that team played an 80-game schedule. The AHL moved to a 76-game schedule in 2011. ... Seven AHL players made their NHL debut last week, bringing the season total to 97 players. 

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