by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat
One of the real pleasant surprises in what has largely been a frustrating first half of this season for the Hartford Wolf Pack has been the play of winger Matt Carey.
Signed to an AHL contract by the Wolf Pack August 1, Carey spent more than half of last year in the ECHL, with the Quad City Mallards, after contributing two goals and four points in 21 AHL games with the Iowa Wild. This season, Carey has been a fixture in the Wolf Pack lineup from day one, scoring his first goal in the second game of the year, and making his way into the top three in team goal-scoring as the schedule approached the Christmas holiday.
The third-year pro out of St. Lawrence University accomplished all that while playing a third- or fourth-line role for the Wolf Pack, and without any power play time, and as a guy whom Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander did not know a great deal about coming into this season. In Carey’s mind, his success has been mostly about controlling that which he can control, and ensuring that he makes the most out of every second he is on the game or practice ice.
“I think it’s just the amount of compete level,” he said recently. “Everyone comes to practice and everyone wants to fight for a spot, so it’s the compete level. Guys are injured right now, and you’ve got to prove what you can do on the ice, and off the ice. Right now it’s just compete level in practice and trying to work harder every day.
“Whatever really gets you on the ice, whatever role you have to play to be able to get ice time, that’s what you’ve got to do to contribute. Maybe if you’re a goal-scorer, maybe if you’re a checker, if you’re a grinder, if you’re a fourth-line guy, third line, first line, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve just got to go out there and contribute whatever way you can. And if it’s going out there and getting a big hit to get the guys going, that’s something I can definitely do.”
That willingness has not been lost on Gernander, whom Carey has impressed as the type of guy who thinks of the team before himself.
“He’s been a great soldier for us,” the Pack bench boss said. “I think any guy that’s willing to finish hits, and will have a scrap here or there for the team, that speaks for itself. That’s a team guy, that’s a character guy, that’s not someone who’s just kind of selfishly looking after themselves. And he’s been all those things.
“We’re just trying to round out his overall game, but he finishes hits, he’s had a couple of scraps, he can pay it off offensively when he gets an opportunity, and now we’ve just got to work a little bit on his two-way game, so that defensively we can pair him against some of the top lines.”
Carey is acutely aware of how important the defensive side of the puck is to cracking the NHL, having gotten a taste of the big time himself. He signed a free agent contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in March of 2014, immediately following his one year at St. Lawrence, and played two NHL games with then-defending Stanley Cup champs. Having gotten to the top level, he is confident that he knows exactly what it takes to get back there.
“It’s just working hard,” Carey said. “It’s not being content where you are right now, you obviously want to push yourself every year to try and make it back up. But right now, it’s being in the present, playing as hard as I can in this league to prove that I can play in this league, play well defensively.
“Playing well in the defensive zone is the biggest part of my game right now, and being able to block shots. Once you get up to the NHL level, you have to be able to play in the defensive zone, so you don’t get scored on, if you’re a third, fourth-line guy. I think playing on the third or fourth line now is really helping me learn the defensive zone, because you don’t have the top goal-scorers like (Nicklas) Jensen and (Marek) Hrivik and all these other guys that can help you out defensively. You kind of have to put your own mindset in, and play as strong as you can on defense.
“The linemates I’ve been given have been awesome, learning off of (Tanner) Glass, learning off of (Philip) McRae, guys that have played in situations, like Glass, 500 games in the NHL, he’s going to teach you a lot. He always comes off and tells me certain things, same with McRae, seven years pro, there’s something to learn from that.”
Carey has contributed more than his share to the success of whatever line he has been on, and he is enthused by amount of secondary scoring, and quality shifts, that the Wolf Pack’s third and fourth lines have provided to the team.
“We have ton of skill players, we have a ton of goal-scorers too,” he said. “So it’s been a little bit easier for guys to score, because we’re working so hard, and we want to win these games, and we need to win these games to make playoffs. So I think our compete level is very high right now, and my linemates have been great. I’ve played with Glass and McRae, and I’ve played with Ox (Ahti Oksanen) and (Allen) McPherson, and we’re all kind of jelling together, and it’s helping us produce.”
Carey went into the Wolf Pack’s Christmas break with six goals on the year, already approaching the 10 he scored in 67 games with Rockford in 2014-15, his first full pro year. And in the spirit of pressuring himself to improve, the first thing he says, when asked about his production, is that he feels he should have more goals.
“There’s been a couple of chances, [McRae] set me up for an awesome breakaway the other night against Syracuse, and I should have scored on that chance,” Carey said, before adding, “but the chances are there, and you can’t really dwell on not producing, and not getting those chances. But I think if you get chances, you’ve got to be happy with those, because eventually they’re going to start going to the back of the net. Both of the two lines I’ve been on, with Glass and McRae we were getting chances, and same with Ox and McPherson. It’s been awesome, being able to produce and help the third or fourth line.”
In addition to his notable goal-scoring, Carey has been responsible for some skillful setups lately, including a terrific pass to Oksanen in the third period of a 5-4 Wolf Pack win in Hershey December 17, for Oksanen’s first career AHL goal. Carey’s reaction to seeing Oksanen bury the chance was reminiscent of Bryan Bickell’s congratulation of Carey, after Bickell set Carey up for his first NHL goal in his second career NHL game, a contest in Nashville April 12, 2014.
“The first thing Bickell said to me after my first was, ‘You’re going to remember me for the rest of your life,’” Carey recalled with a laugh. “So I said the same thing to Ox, even though it was an AHL goal. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, but it was nice for him to get his first goal, and get it out of the way the fourth game in.”
Carey’s one year of college hockey gave him the opportunity to play on a line with his older brother Greg, who would also turn pro at the end of that season and now plays for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. With the Wolf Pack and Phantoms being Atlantic Division rivals, the Carey brothers are getting multiple opportunities to go up against one another, and the younger sibling is relishing that.
“It’s been awesome,” Carey said. “I went out and saw him in Allentown and he came and saw me in Hartford, and we just kind of talk afterwards, how the game has gone. We’ve done well against them, and I think they’re a high-scoring team. They’ve got a lot of firepower, but I think we’ve been able to come out strong against them in Allentown, and I think the rest of the year we’ll be able to do well against them.”
Greg Carey also spent time in the ECHL before exploding for 26 goals in the AHL with Springfield last year. Matt hopes to follow a similar upward trajectory.
“I’ve always tried to compete against him, and we were always competing back and forth,” Carey said of his big brother. “Growing up, that was the biggest part. My dad kind of set that compete level, even if it was Greg sitting at home reading a book, he’d be like, ‘Well, Matty’s at the park, practicing, or on the ice on the outdoor pond.’ And we’d go one-on-one all the time, and being able to play in college together, that was the first time we actually didn’t need to compete against each other. I like that I get to play against him, but I would love to play again with him. Obviously he’s in a great situation, and he’s put himself in that position. Everyone would like to get in that position, same for myself.”
And wherever Carey’s hockey career takes him, he will always fondly remember that year that he and Greg spent as teammates instead of brotherly rivals.
“We jelled a little bit,” Carey chuckled. “We obviously bickered back and forth out of the locker room, and sometimes in the locker room, not really harping on each other, just discussing plays. It was awesome, just being able to, if I needed to vent after the game, go over to his college dorm room, where he lived with three or four guys, and we’d always vent about the game. And it was awesome, being in the same situation, being on the same team. It was great for my family, they’d come down and get to see one team play, rather than two. It was great being on one team, and hopefully in our pro careers we can get that happening again. That would be a great experience.”
Although that year, with the fun of playing with his brother and the thrill of getting a shot at the NHL, remains something Carey will never forget, he wants to stay firmly rooted in the here and now. Even when asked about that lamplighter in Nashville, he quickly turns the conversation back to what’s in front of him today.
“It was a couple of years ago obviously, but it’s something you’ll never forget,” he said. “But at this position right now, being in the AHL, that’s kind of what you want to focus on, you want to focus on playing here. That’s something that happened in the past, and you kind of want to focus on the present.”
And according to Gernander, if Carey keeps that focused concentration on his overall game, even better things may be ahead for him.
“We’ve been working on the defensive part of games, or understanding the system play,” the Wolf Pack mentor said, “and if he can be responsible defensively, maybe the opportunity exists to bump a guy up a bit in your lineup, because he can pay it off when he does get opportunities.”