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Mike Matheson’s first game with the Canadiens did not get off to a good start.
Less than three minutes into Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers the Canadiens were losing 2-0 and Matheson was already minus-2 after missing the first 17 games of the season with an abdominal muscle strain.
Matheson went back to the bench after the second goal and noticed that young defencemen Johnathan Kovacevic and Arber Xhekaj were giving him strange looks.
“I could tell they were kind of sitting there like: ‘Are we going to say anything to him?’ ” Matheson said with a smile after the game. “I was like: Yeah, hockey is a funny game. Always testing your resolve. It would have been way too easy for me to have come in and been plus-3. There’s always a test and there’s always a challenge. That’s what makes it great.”
Matheson and the Canadiens bounced back to win 5-4 in a shootout. Matheson, who grew up in Pointe-Claire on Montreal’s West Island, scored the third goal for the Canadiens.
Matheson ended up logging 23:57 of ice time, the most of any Canadiens defenceman. The 28-year-old, who is in his eighth NHL season, will be a huge help to this young, rebuilding team that is off to a surprising 9-8-1 start heading into Tuesday’s game at the Bell Centre against the Buffalo Sabres (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). Matheson will reduce the workload of David Savard and will be a second veteran for the young defencemen to lean on and learn from.
Like how to quickly forget a bad start to a game.
“The ability to kind of leave each shift in the past and focus on the next one is really important,” Matheson said. “It felt great to get that goal, but I think I had moved past the first two shifts. I don’t think either goal … it’s not like I put a pizza up the middle and you could say: ‘Wow! That was your fault.’ I think regardless of the fact that it was my fault or not, I think I put it in the past and had moved on.”
Canadiens GM Kent Hughes acquired Matheson from Pittsburgh during the offseason in a deal that sent defenceman Jeff Petry and forward Ryan Poehling to the Penguins. Before becoming GM in January, Hughes had been Matheson’s agent. After acquiring him from Pittsburgh, Hughes described Matheson as a “five-star human being.”
While Petry and his wife wanted out of Montreal, Matheson is thrilled to be back in his hometown. His parents — Rod and Margaret — were at the Bell Centre Saturday night to watch his regular-season Canadiens debut, along with his brother, Kenny, his wife, Emily, and their year-year-old son, Hudson.
All three of Rod and Margaret’s children — Kelly, Kenny and Mike — learned to skate on the backyard rink Rod built every winter and they all went through the hockey Sport-Études program at John Rennie High School. Kelly was the first girl to take part in the hockey program at John Rennie and was followed by her younger brothers. Mike was captain of the Lac St. Louis Lions when they won the Quebec midget Triple-A championship in 2011 with Jonathan Drouin as a teammate.
When the Canadiens first announced Matheson’s injury on Oct. 13 they said he was expected to be out for eight weeks. He made it back in less than six weeks. Matheson said the fact he was close to his family helped during his recovery period.
“I think having the opportunity to see my parents a little bit more probably helped,” he said. “For sure, if I was by myself somewhere it would have been a lot harder than taking advantage of being there for my son a bit more and being more present as a parent and all that. I think that’s so important and it has helped me as a hockey player being a parent. You go home and your No. 1 job is to be a dad and it’s not whether the game went great or bad. You’ve got to check that and give your best self to your kids and your family. I think that’s helped me a lot.”
Matheson is living in Old Montreal and is enjoying seeing another side of his home town.
“It’s almost like my wife and I are both experiencing (the city) for the first time because you kind of get stuck on the West Island and don’t venture into the city a whole lot,” he said about growing up in Pointe-Claire. “I’ve obviously been to the Old Port a few times (before), but it’s a little new and it’s a lot of fun.”
I asked Matheson if he had thought about what he was going to do with the puck from his first goal as a Canadien.
“I haven’t, actually,” he said. “Maybe that’s one for my dad.”
A very happy ending to his first game in bleu-blanc-rouge.
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