|Panthers forward Shawn Matthias celebrates one of his two goals against the New Jersey Devils on March 30 (Getty Images).
Pavel Bure and Steven Stamkos is not bad company to keep when it comes to goal scoring.
That’s just where Shawn Matthias found himself after he wrapped up a phenomenal month of March with 11 goals in 16 games. That total tied for the NHL lead for March with Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby’s linemate with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It also was the second time in Panthers history any player had scored that many goals in a calendar month, along with Bure’s 15-goal run in March 2001.
Matthias’ outburst was as unexpected as it was impressive.
After all, Matthias had never scored more than 10 goals in an entire season. He also entered March with three goals on the season and had gone six games without scoring before the Panthers traveled to Carolina on Saturday, March 2 for the first of a back-to-back weekend set against the Hurricanes.
“I’ve had my opportunities here, and it’s up to me to take advantage of it,” Matthias said. “It feels good to capitalize on it.”
Matthias’ big opportunity came when veteran Stephen Weiss left the lineup to undergo season-ending wrist surgery.
With Weiss gone, Matthias moved from left wing to center and also got more ice time. And, boy, has he taken advantage of it.
“He's really moving his feet,” said defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, currently the Panthers tied with goaltender Scott Clemmensen as the second longest active Panther (since the 2009-10 season). “He never gives up on the play. He keeps on going. It doesn't matter. He falls. He gets hit. He gets up and he keeps battling for that puck. He backchecks hard. When you're moving your feet, good things will happen. When you're good on defense, then you get a turnover.
“By moving his feet, he creates space, separation between him and the defenseman. It's hard to stop the guy when he's really coming (with) speed at you. That's what he's doing now. He's a lot more confident, I feel, and I feel like now he's a big player for us.”
Even though he turned only 25 on Feb. 19, Matthias has been around a while. He made his NHL debut back on Jan. 18, 2008 and, with Weiss sidelined, he stands as the longest-tenured member on the team.
It just may be that Matthias has arrived as a front-line NHL player.
Remember, he was a highly touted prospect when the Panthers acquired him in the February 2007 trade that sent forward Todd Bertuzzi to Detroit. Matthias also had flashed big-time offensive ability in the Ontario Hockey League, recording 73 points in 64 games for the Belleville Bulls in 2006-07 and improving his total to 79 points in only 53 games the following season.
After becoming a full-time NHL player late in the 2009-10 season, Matthias became a solid two-way player with good size (6-3, 218) and speed. He contributed as a third- or fourth-line player and also as a penalty killer.
The offensive production, though, wasn’t there. But the offensive ability was.
“I thought he had the potential to be a real solid NHL player that could score,” former Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said on the morning of March 30, hours before his New Jersey Devils played at the BB&T Center. “He’d been a scorer in junior. He had those types of ability. Some guys take a little longer than others. We had him at a point where he was pretty fresh out of junior and was still learning to get comfortable at this level. And he’s a confidence guy. When you talk to Shawn, I think he needed to get his confidence to play at this level offensively. That takes a while sometimes. I’m not that surprised, no. He’s a good, honest player and a good kid.”
DeBoer might not have liked Matthias as much after the game, though. Matthias scored twice against the Devils, including a game-tying goal with 27 seconds remaining in regulation before the Panthers won 3-2 in overtime.
It was the second consecutive two-goal game for Matthias, who ended the month of March with five goals in three games.
“I don’t think it’s been trumpets and bugles announcing it,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said of Matthias’ emergence. “He just comes to work every day and he’s prepared. He realizes that it has not been a good year as far as reliability to have our personnel in the lineup and to get guys to come and play, and Shawn has just been a guy that’s low-maintenance, puts on his skates and he’s going out there and going his job. He’s been great at it.”
|Matthias celebrates one of his goals. (Getty Images) |
Matthias didn’t just score a lot of goals in March, he scored some beautiful goals.
There was the end-to-end rush against Winnipeg where he beat defenseman Mark Stuart with a slick backhand-to-forehand deke between the legs before firing a wrist shot over the glove of Ondrej Pavelec. And then there was the short-handed beauty at Boston where he dove at a loose puck just inside the Bruins blue line, quickly got back up to gain control of the puck and then deked goalie Tuukka Rask.
Here’s the thing about Matthias: His coaches and teammates had seen those kinds of highlight-reels plays before in practice.
“Right at training camp last year, my first year here, he took off on a rush and he took somebody wide and he went hard to the net and scored a goal,” Dineen said. “There’s been some changes in his life that have given him a lot of self-confidence and I think that’s always a big factor in anything. You just go out and you play the game and don’t worry about all the little things. He’s a very focused athlete right now.”
For Matthias, the biggest change came last summer when he began seeing a sports psychologist.
Perhaps it’s simpler to just say he reached a point in his career where he just decided to take charge and that being a complementary player no longer was acceptable.
“I want to be an NHL player for the next 10 years,” he said. “I don’t want to look back at my career and be like, I wish I would have done this. I really took that to heart (last) summer. I worked my butt off. It’s just confidence, too, but mostly I took a long look in the mirror and wasn’t satisfied with the few years before and now I’m just trying to get better every day.”
The truth is, Matthias is going to have a hard time being better than he was in March. It seemed nothing could stop him. Not even a bout with the flu that had him in bed all day before he suited up against the New York Rangers that night. Not even taking a puck near the eye, which knocked him out of action midway through the second period against the Devils in New Jersey — until he returned to start the third period.
“We need a leader right now and that's what he's providing,” Kulikov said. “Starting with goals and leadership. He's leading by example. He steps on the ice and he works hard every shift. Other guys see that and follow the lead.”