From NYHJ: Underdog Moulson a key cog in Isles' playoff push
by Ty Anderson/Correspondent
There’s a combined 1,184 players and six years that separate linemates Matt Moulson and John Tavares in the NHL draft, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the New York Islanders’ patented one-two punch for the past four seasons.
A standout two-sport athlete at Cornell, who was actually drafted higher by the National Lacrosse League than the NHL, Moulson was a mere 29 picks away from being undrafted altogether in 2003 before being taken in the ninth round, 283rd overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The same, however, cannot be said for Tavares, a prized prospect beginning with his days as a 15-year-old skating with the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League. He eventually was drafted by the Islanders with the first overall pick in 2009.
Yet despite the vastly different journeys on the way to the top of the Isles’ lineup, it began with a simple change of scenery for a rattled Moulson, who has reached the 30-goal mark in each of the past three seasons.
“I was getting older, and I was in the minors up and down for a couple of years, and my confidence was pretty low,” Moulson said of his three-year stint in the Los Angeles Kings organization, spent primarily in the AHL, with just 29 NHL games played. “I came to New York’s camp that fall and knew that I had to make the team, and sometimes things have a way of working themselves out.”
For Moulson, that chance came with the opportunity to play with the Isles’ wunderkind, Tavares. Skating in all 82 games in his first year donning the Blue and Orange, Moulson chimed in with 30 goals and 48 points for the rebuilding Islanders while developing an instant bond with the then-rookie centerman.
The results followed Moulson into his second year with the team, as he established career highs in both goals (31) and points (53), before smashing those numbers in his third year by way of a 36-goal, 69-point run in 2011-12.
Suiting up as the Isles’ most consistent winger from a production and health standpoint, Moulson’s connection with Tavares has been a true thing of beauty on Long Island but has still left Moulson shaking his head in disbelief as his 22-year-old linemate’s career has taken flight to superstardom.
“We know each other extremely well on and off the ice,” the 29-year-old Moulson said. “I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do (up ice) sometimes; he comes up ice with some moves that are a little beyond my level, but he knows where I’m going to be and what I’m going to do in certain situations, and I know where he’s going to be and do in certain situations.”
But with a dual-threat connection with each rush, it’s been the diversity of the Isles’ offense, beginning with Tavares, that’s left Moulson and teammates impressed with the club’s continuous strides in the offensive game.
“He’s a great goal scorer, but he’s also a phenomenal playmaker,” Moulson said of Tavares’ skill set. “I just get to areas where I get the puck and score those dirty goals. You don’t want to get away from that too much when you find something you’re good at.”
Despite the skills of both Moulson and Tavares, the Islanders are going to need more than just the usual suspects to contribute in 2013 if they’re to compete in this 48-game campaign, something that begins with the mindset instilled into the club by head coach Jack Capuano.
“Coming into this year, we knew that we have to be a lot more disciplined within our systems to execute them well, so that’s been the main focus this year,” said Moulson. “In saying that, we want to play our systems and execute, but (Capuano) also gives us the freedom to make plays and create things offensively.”
Scoring 196 goals last year, third-fewest in the league, the key for the Isles to compete for an Eastern Conference playoff berth this year begins with their battles against Atlantic Division opponents, a constant wrench in the Isles’ plans for success.
“You have to get those divisional points, and they come up huge in the end, and there’s obviously no easy point in our division,” Moulson said of a scheduled loaded with matchups against the Flyers, Devils, Rangers and Penguins, teams the Isles won just eight of 24 against last year. “We’ve shown that we can compete with any team if we’re consistent and bring it night in and night out.”
While it’s been a slower process than most wanted, a promising ray of hope for this New York season comes with the leadership skills of the club’s more experienced players, namely captain Mark Streit, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and the Isles’ newest top-six forward, Brad Boyes.
“You get that input from guys that have been through more than you, and knowing when to calm the team down when something’s not going right,” Moulson said. “When the younger guys get down, you can’t have that, and (the veterans) make guys know that it’s not the end of the world and that you can come back from deficits.”
But coming back from deficits hasn’t been the issue for the Islanders as much as protecting leads has. Finishing last year with the league’s worst winning percentage when leading after two periods of play — a dismal .679 — and allowing a league-high 93 goals in the third period, it’s clear that the only way the Isles’ luck will change will be with the experience and know-how the club will get from this abbreviated season.
“One of the hardest things to do in professional sports is to bring a consistent, intense, good game every single time, and we’re learning that,” Moulson said. “That comes with maturity, going through different situations with some of the best teams in the league.”