Talking Hockey with my Brother, Mike Matheson

Talking Hockey with my Brother, Mike Matheson

Growing up playing ball hockey on the streets of Pointe-Claire, Quebec I would force my younger brother, Mike Matheson of the Florida Panthers, to play goalie all night while I fired shots at him. His only reprieve would be when Mom called us inside to get our homework done. I like to think it was all that time he spent in nets where he learned to be such a good player.

The Panthers played in Montreal last week and my coworker, Eugene, and I had a chance to sit down with Mike and my dad Rod. We talked to him about some of his greatest strengths, what he’s thinking in certain situations, and why Sidney Crosby is the toughest forward he’s ever faced.

Kenny: Who’s the toughest player to go up against?

Mike: Toughest forward? Crosby. I mean – there’s a lot of really, really hard players to play against but he has so many dimensions to his game that other players don’t. Like everybody says that McDavid is the best player in the league and he’s definitely the fastest. He makes every team super nervous every time he gets the puck. Off the rush, he’s almost impossible to defend but once he gets in the zone he becomes a little more manageable. Sid just has, he can beat you off the rush, he can beat you down low, everybody knows with all his cut-backs, attract all the attention and then find somebody back door. On the power play, he’ll be a net-front guy, he’ll be the top guy, he’ll be the bumper, he’ll be the half-wall guy, he just kinda roams around and gets lost and you basically just have to know exactly where he is at all times. I remember this one play, where I was out against them, the puck was coming from the point down, my left flank. I was going out and I had my stick to the middle for the high tip and I noticed that {Crosby} had gone from the net-front out to the side of the net so I flipped it over and was in the lane and I think it was Kris {Letang} that was coming down. He shot, it was going 5 feet wide and {Crosby} just {makes a whooshing sound} caught it out of the air put it in. Gotta tip your cap sometimes.

Kenny: You talk about your stick positioning there and you’ve always had an active stick. Do you have any idea how high you rank in that area?

Mike: (Shrugs) I don’t know…top ten?

Kenny: 3rd overall

You’re third in defensive zone stick checks and also neutral zone stick checks. So you’re good at using your stick to force players into dumping pucks or you’re creating turnovers at your blue line.

Mike: Oh really, that is interesting because that’s something we focus on. Instead of just accepting the rush we squeeze up. We call it a squeeze.

Kenny: When you say you use it as a tactic are you just trying to keep a close gap or is there something more specific that you do?

Mike: You keep a close gap and like some teams will be coming through the neutral zone and you hear inside dots. They’ll stay inside the dots and just kind of accept the rush. Even if it’s a 3 on 2, 4 on 2, the first guy, you want to be on a rope with you and your partner so that the first guy squeezes off the puck right away. The first guy, you do your best to squeeze it off and stick check that guy but the point of it is more so to make him flip a pass into the middle or chip it down the wall and then your partners on a rope and is gonna be right there.

Kenny: You’ve also been good in battles. You rank 2nd among defensemen in puck battles won in your own end. It’s pretty clear that you’d rather use your stick to separate a player from the puck over throwing a big hit that could potentially take you out of position.

Mike: That’s what I’ve found. I think in College I used to hit a lot more and at the end of the day I’d just be more out of position and just because I hit the guy it doesn’t mean he didn’t make the play.

Kenny: You scored a goal Monday night, so let’s talk about how you generate offense. Among defensemen, per game, you rank 31st in controlled entries – first on the team. I remember you told me once that you used to watch game film on Duncan Keith and you recognized that every time the puck transitioned to offense, he would immediately take a couple of hard strides up the ice.

Mike: It’s just to try and be an option and not be out of the play and then realizing you could be there but now it’s too late. You kind of need to balance that because you don’t want to be constantly taking three hard strides and leaving somebody behind you. Especially if you’re playing against the top two lines. It’s a different game with the top two versus the bottom two because the bottom two have to play honest because they’ll get benched if they don’t backcheck and reload. The other guys have leeway so even if the puck is just leaving the zone they’ll stay back at the net and hope. So that’s where that becomes a bit different.

Kenny: So a lot of it has to do with being aware of who’s on the ice with you.

Mike: Exactly.

Kenny: You’re the 20th ranked defenseman in scoring chances off the rush per game so you’re clearly making good use of those entries.

Rod: Of all defensemen? Really?

Kenny: You love to try that little wraparound after going wide with speed.

Mike: Love it! Works once a year! (laughing)

Kenny: On the PK, most PP’s are trying to line up the big one-timer shot. How do you defend against that? Washington has Ovechkin, Winnipeg has Laine, you guys have Hoffman, Tampa has both Stamkos and Kucherov…

Mike: That’s what makes them impossible to kill!

Yeah I mean, that’s what Washington figured out before anyone else did, was that either team’s start keying out on Ovechkin and then you hit Oshie in the middle every single time and so it’s hard and that’s again what makes Tampa’s power play so hard to play against.  They have Hedman, who just goes up to the top and chooses a side and either they hammer it or they seam it to the next guy. They play their entire power play up top and there’s just so much space up there that it’s hard to cover. One game, we thought we’d try and surprise them. We had one D stay net-front, and then once it got to Hedman, our F1 went straight at Hedman, our F2 went straight at Kucherov and our D2 went straight at Stamkos, to see what they would do. We got them…the first time. The second time {chuckles} we did it and they went down low and our D started going out on, I think it was Palat, down to the goal line, and Point was in the middle and realized that all three of our guys were still up top so he just popped up in the middle and put it top corner.

Rod: The biggest challenge is to keep them out of the seam right? If they can get it through the seam there’s no way you’re getting over in time and no way the goalie’s getting over in time.

Mike: When they make that play and then go straight over to the one-timer, that’s when you need your D to flex out. There’s nothing pretty about it but that’s when you just have to eat a shot.

Who ranks the highest in blocked shots?

Kenny: Edler

Mike: Oh yeah he eats shots like it’s nothing. We played {Vancouver} earlier in the year and our power play again set up Hoffman for one-timers and Edler was just sitting on the far post like {hits his chest} he blocked like seven of them right off his chest, didn’t flinch. I think Yandle went up to him and said, “what kind of shoulder pads do you have.” {Edler} was like, “stop hitting me, I don’t wanna block them” (laughing) But that’s a team that fronts pucks.

Kenny: You played with Johnny Gaudreau for a couple of years, do you find you have a better idea of what he’s trying to do when you go against him? Kevin Hayes too.

Mike: Yeah, I mean you know from playing with guys you just figure out their body language and tendencies a lot. You find it playing against Eastern Conference teams versus Western Conference teams. You know most of the players and get used to what they like to do and then you play a Western Conference team and we line up against any team and I haven’t played them more than 5 or 6 times ever. You’re kind of guessing and playing a bit of a safer game.

Eugene: There’s only so much that video can help you with that.

Mike: Again the first couple lines it’s a different game because they go rogue, they don’t necessarily play within their system. That’s what makes Brad Marchand so hard to play against because even on penalty kills, we talk about it with our power play. They have a penalty kill system but he goes rogue and will just jump a pass. He’ll leave something open but he’ll jump the pass and intercept it a lot of times and all of a sudden it’s a 2 on 1 the other way. You can watch all the video of what their system is but a lot of the top guys are good because they see opportunity and they just go rogue and take what they see.

Eugene: So what do people underestimate about your game? Sounds like your speed.

Mike: Yeah I mean I think, I’ve been playing for three years now I think people are pretty aware of my skating. I think my stick, I annoy forwards a lot with it. They get openly annoyed (laughs). Growing up I’ve never been known as a defensive defenseman, last year I was on the power play a little bit but this year I haven’t been so I’ve had to figure out my role a bit to help the team. That’s what I’ve been focusing on.

Kenny: Alright we’ll let you get to your pre-game nap but thanks for this and good luck tonight!

 

*Stats as of the date of interview, Tuesday, March 26th.

 

(Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)