Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Low key Matt Niskanen scores a memorable goal

By Larry Wigge

We were reminded of Bobby Orr working his way up the ice so gloriously when we watched Matt Niskanen glide to a goal.

But ... somehow that rink-length rush that gave the Washington Capitals a 3-2 victory over Philadelphia on February 7 ... was more than a retrospective of a goal more than 30 years ago.

The goal, which snapped a 2-2 tie, was more than just a magical mystery tour with just over five minutes into the third period. It was a tribute to an otherise unsung hero.

Niskanen wound up like usual ...

He skated his way out of the Caps zone, through center ice -- looking for passing options. Like a quarterback unable to find a receivers, he looked up at the blue line for an opening and saw that Flyers defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Michael Del Zotto were out of position, lunging with their sticks as Niskanen dangled the puck through them. What he saw was a clear break in on goaltender Steve Mason, flipping the puck under the goalie's armpit.

"I think all building was surprised," said Alex Ovechin with glee. "It was like back to the 70s with Bobby Orr."

The not-so-flashy Niskanen took it all in.

"It was an accident ... I don't have many moves," Niskanen insisted as he scored his third goal of the season and first since November.

"He had a lane to go right through," said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. "I think he looked even surprised when the lane he saw opened like like seas and then he kept going. He put a good finish on it. That's a huge goal from a guy that's known for his defense."

Niskanen, whose best single season was 10 goals with Pittsburgh in 2013-14, has scored a total of 42 goals in 600 NHL games.

One year after finshing his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the 6 foot, 209 pounder from Virginia, Minnesota is fulfilling his boyhood dreams.

He was playing a regular shift on defense with the Dallas Stars and he's at the All-Star Game in Atlanta rubbing elbows with the game's greats, preparing for the YoungStars skills competition in 2008.

"It's been an unbelievable ride," Niskanen told me. "I'm having a blast. Enjoying every day.

"It was my dream to play in the NHL since I was 5 or 6 and my parents couldn't get me off the rink. But going into training camp I figured I'd be headed for Iowa."

Except for a couple of injuries at the start of the season, this story might have been different. But Niskanen, the Stars first pick, 28th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft never lacked for skill and confidence.

His plus-12 plus-minus number was eye-popping for rookie or veteran alike. In his three-plus years with the Stars and his three-plus seasons with Pittsburgh and in his second season with Washington his plus-minus totals have been astonishing. In 52 games this season, he is plus-18. His tops came in 2013-14 with plus-33.

During that All-Star Game at Atlanta, former San Jose coach Ron Wilson said of Niskanen.

"We’ve played the Stars six times and while I maybe didn't notice him individually that much the first couple of times I saw him because of the guy he plays alongside most of the time, Sergei Zubov," said Wilson. "But the last few times we've played them you can see him coming and coming with his skating skills jumping into the play and puck skills working the transition game.

"I've always felt that Sergei Zubov is the most underrated skilled defenseman in the game and you can sure tell that he's mentoring Matt the way he's developing."

"Sergei makes it work," Niskanen said emphatically. "He's so good at reading so many things that are happening at fast pace on the ice -- and I'm lucky enough that he's shared some of those little details on what to look for and when to go with the puck that he's simply the master of doing."

Growing up in the Iron Range in Minnesota, Matt was a North Stars fan first and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan second. His favorite players? Mike Modano and Mario Lemieux. I also liked Nicklas Lidstrom. He is the best all-around defenseman of my lifetime. Although I will never reach his level, I still strive to have his attributes (skating, skill, and awareness).

"Yeah, it's funny," Niskanen said, when asked about a defenseman idolizing two star forwards. "I always played defense, but I guess I've always wanted to be a forward."

The decision to leave school and take a chance in professional hockey was very tedious. He and his parents, Chuck and Linda, spent countless hours. But hockey won out over his double major in school of health and physical education.

Now he’s majoring in looking mature beyond his years on the Washington defense -- with the obvious smarts to listen to a pretty good defensive partner.

Niskanen laughs when he talks about growing up, partly because his Stars teammates, particularly goaltender Marty Turco have given him lots of grief over the 2001 Pontiac Sunfire with more than 92,000 miles that he had shipped with him from college.

"We came back from a trip a while back and I got to the parking lot and my car was gone," Niskanen said, sounding a bit perturbed to be the part of one of Turco’s practical jokes. "Marty had the car towed away ... and he had it PIMPED up, detailed with outlandish hub caps and everything."

The forward-thinking youngster learned his lesson. Now he drives a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado. The truck of choice back on the Iron Range in Minnesota.

Why hockey?

"I got into hockey because all the neighbor kids played," Niskanen recalled. "Every kid gives the sport a try and up until you're about a Peewee, you play mostly outdoors which is where I got my start. My dad had a key to the outdoor rink and drove the Zamboni ... so we were lucky to have good outdoor ice almost every time."

Your father drove the Zamboni, eh?

Your high school team went to the finals.

"We had cheered for teams ahead of us to make it when we were younger, but when we were seniors we finally put it together," he remembered. "We had a good playoff run and reached our goal. That was a big deal for our town and our school and to do it with a lot of my friends was pretty cool."

Alex Goligoski and Matt Niskanen grew up about 40 miles apart in northern Minnesota, so there's a little bit of irony in the fact the two defensemen were traded for each other.

"I probably played against him since I was 12 or 13," Niskanen said. "Bantams, high school, college. We saw a lot of each other."

Matt Niskanen signed as a free agent with Washington. He inked a seven-year deal worth $40.25 million at an annual cap hit of $5.75 million.

Todd Reirden was the defensive coach at Pittsburgh, so he knew Niskanen very well.

"The relationship I have with him has really grown over the last four years," Reirden said. "We came up with a plan when he first walked into my office about how to rebuild his game and get it back to where it was.

"Certainly Matt really stepped up, showing a lot about his leadership and his ability to help young players. He's a righthand shot who can play on your first power play. He was able to increase his level of quality of competition, which again was one of our goals."

No one could have ever come up with a Matt Niskanen-Bobby Orr comarison for a key goal.

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