When head coach Michel Therrien was penciling names onto the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, clear-day roster back on March 11, he was left with a few tough decisions.
Including Marquis Mathieu was a no-brainer.
Simply put, the guy is extremely valuable. That’s one-of-the-hottest-sticks-on-the-ice valuable. That’s wins-nearly-every-face-off valuable. And, perhaps most importantly, that’s already-won-a-Calder-Cup valuable.
“I think (experience) is huge,” said Mathieu, who won a Calder Cup with the Providence Bruins back in 1998-99. “Experience is something you cannot buy. You really have to earn your experience through the years. It’s about being smart on the ice and doing the little things you have to do to win a hockey game. And I think the more experience you have on a team, the better off you’re going to be down the stretch.”
Of course, Mathieu could be a fresh-faced rookie with zero playoff experience, and he would have still been an easy choice for the clear-day based solely on the numbers he has put up over the last two months.
After registering just six points (1+5) over his first 43 games this season, Mathieu simply caught fire and posted 16 points (7+9) over his next 21 contests. As of March 22, his efforts had him ranked ninth on the Penguins in scoring with 22 points (8+14).
“I don’t think I’m doing a lot different,” Mathieu said about his latest scoring surge. “I’m just getting more playing time now. I had to be patient at the beginning of the season, and in February we had a lot of injuries, which gave me an opportunity to step up and play like I need to play to be effective.”
Whatever the reason, Mathieu suddenly seems ready to make some more postseason noise. And if his hot stick can be combined with those of Tom Kostopoulos, Tomas Surovy, Konstantin Koltsov, Kris Beech, Michel Ouellet, Shane Endicott and Toby Petersen, then the Pens could have a tough team to beat.
“I think so,” Mathieu said, when asked if the team has what it takes to get him another championship ring. “Maybe two months ago I told these guys, “Just hang in there. I know things are tough right now, but we really need to hang in there and give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs, because we’re going to get some help back.”
“You want to win the Cup every year, but you never know what’s going to happen. At least now we have the ingredients to make a statement.”
But before the Pens can make a statement in the postseason, they have to make it there. They are currently sitting pretty, but there are still two weeks left. Now is the time when a team likes to have a guy like Marquis Mathieu on its side.
Mathieu knows what it takes to win, and he is happy to do the kinds of jobs that usually go unnoticed. Having a knack for winning nearly every face off is just one example.
“I take a lot of pride in my face-offs,” Mathieu said. “It’s been one of my assets throughout my career. My first year pro, my coach told me he wanted me to win every draw that was taken. And, at the time, I was thinking, “This guy is out there.’ I didn’t really understand what he was trying to do, but I picked it up from there. Now I basically approach every draw as if it’s a must-win.”
When Mathieu is not winning face-offs or scoring big goals, he is usually busy finding his way under the other team’s skin. He plays the game with an edge that has him valuable to his teammates and irritating to the opposition.
His antics have cost him 93 penalty minutes, but that pales in comparison to the number of minutes he draws on his opponents.
“For me to be in the game, the other team needs to hate me,” Mathieu said. “And I need to do the little things that make them hate me. That puts me into the game even more and that gets me going.
“I wouldn’t really say I’m a cheap player out there, but I play every shift as hard as I can. I’m not a huge guy, and I cannot run guys over like I would want to. I do a lot of work with my stick.”
Of course, Mathieu has also been doing a different kind of stick work lately ^ the kind that frustrates opposing goaltenders. He seems to grab those blue-collar points, the ones that come via scrappy play and hard work. And they always seem to come at the right time.
Seen more as a penalty killer, the veteran center does not see much time on the power play. But when it’s five-on-five hockey and the team needs a goal, he is starting to become a go-to guy.
And that is just another reason why the coaching staff had little trouble writing his name down on the clear-day roster.
“You are always looking for anything a player can bring to the table, and experience is a big part of it,” Penguins assistant coach Mike Yeo said. “But the face-offs are also a big part of it. His penalty killing is a big part of it. Just the fact that he has led us through this late charge, scoring the big goals at the big times is a part of it.
“You are always looking for someone to bring something special to the team, and, right now, he’s bringing a few things.”