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Old college try yields big AHL results for Matsumoto

by Lindsay Kramer

Philadelphia Phantoms rookie center Jonathan Matsumoto, a 3rd round pick in 2006 out of Bowling Green University, has 14 points in 15 games played so far.
At this rate, Philadelphia Phantoms rookie center Jonathan Matsumoto might even convince his biggest doubter that he does OK when moving up levels of hockey.

That skeptic would be him.

When Matsumoto jumped from juniors to Bowling Green University, he wasn’t at all sure he was ready.

“I was one of those guys who was worried about going to college and not being able to perform,’’ he said. “I guess I get comfortable where I am. I like familiar settings.’’

Those questions turned to production in the form of 18 goals and 14 assists in 36 games for the Falcons.

When Matsumoto left Bowling Green after three seasons to test his game in the pros, he again figured he really had to be in over his head. Instead, it’s been opposing teams who wish he’d stayed in school. His 14 points place him tied for 10th among all AHL scorers.

“I’m still not quite there. Every game is still a challenge,’’ he said. “You go down the roster, you see names you recognize, first-round picks. Confidence is good, but over-confidence can be the ruin of some guys.’’

Apparently not for Matsumoto, although he has every reason to start patting himself on the back.

Matsumoto, the Flyers’ third-round pick in the 2006 draft, is one of a slew of young players who are the fresh look of a Phantoms team in desperate need of a makeover. After winning the Calder Cup three seasons ago, Philadelphia missed the AHL playoffs each of the past two seasons.

This season, the Phantoms have started 12-1-1 in large part because of the line of Matsumoto (6-8), fellow rookie Kyle Greentree (5-9) and Darren Reid (6-3).

“As a rookie, you don’t know what to expect through the year. It’s kind of tough to believe this is a job,’’ Matsumoto gushed. “I go to the rink a couple of hours a day, and then my day of work is done.’’

True enough, but it was a little bit too much of that philosophy that created Matsumoto’s only real, brief, cause for insecurity this season. Phantoms coach Craig Berube spied a tentativeness in his prospect’s game during the preseason, pointed it out to him and then hasn’t looked back since.

“At the start, he was not intense enough. We talked about this, he changed it and he’s been good,’’ Berube said. “Just be competitive. I guess it looked like he was unsure what he wanted to do. I always tell players, ‘What are you doing to get noticed? He wasn’t doing anything to get noticed. Mats was very good about it. He said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. He looks like he has fun out there.’’

It helps a bunch that Matsumoto has learned to stop disliking Greentree. Or, at least what Greentree represented.

Greentree played at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, a huge rival of Bowling Green. The relationship between the two players then was non-existent at best, and more typically a little icy. Now, they are roommates.

“I wasn’t a really big fan of his until I came here (at the end of last season),’’ Matsumoto said. “He was one of their better players. I think he usually had has way with our team. This year, living together, the connection is starting away from the rink. On the ice, we are starting to complement each other.’’

Berube describes the puzzle pieces thusly: Matsumoto, of course, is the distributor, Greentree rents out space around the net and Reid is the good-hands man.

“He (Matsumoto) is good at taking the puck and skating with it and making plays,’’ Berube said. “What really jumps out at me, as a young guy, is the way he attacks with speed. He creates so much by doing that. All three of them, they skate and they move.’’

Matsumoto could be on his way to a huge following if he keeps producing. He’s half-Japanese on his father’s side, a heritage that makes him a pleasant curiosity at the AHL level and a potential banner-carrier if he hits the NHL.

Matsumoto’s paternal great-grandparents both were from Japan. His father, Nelson, was born and raised in Canada and, according to Jonathan, was completely indoctrinated into the North American way of life to mitigate post World War II bias against the Japanese.

Jonathan doesn’t speak any Japanese and hasn’t been to that country yet, but would like to visit someday.

“I’m proud of my Japanese heritage. I’m proud of being Canadian, too,’’ said Matsumoto, who is from Ottawa. “To be honest with you, a lot of people don’t pick up on it (his Japanese bloodlines) right away. I don’t necessarily look Japanese, per se. But I was talking to one of our trainers the other day. I mentioned I was Japanese. He said; ‘Really?’ I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a flag bearer. If that’s what I get labeled as, that’s fine.’’

Should that issue come up at the NHL level, Matsumoto’s more immediate concern will be bracing himself mentally for that one last jump, the one that trumps all others. NHL calls are best received by those who understand they truly are deserving of them.

“I would assume so,’’ Matsumoto said when asked if his initial doubts might trail him there, too. “I have to figure that out, hopefully, when I get there. I’m just going to do everything I can to get there.’’


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