SAN JOSE- Fans in attendance for the San Jose Sharks’ home-opening 5-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes will likely have focused their post-game praise upon star forward Patrick Marleau.
Sure enough Marleau’s first goal cut the Coyotes lead to 3-2 and his second ended up as the game winner, so nobody will blame fans for remembering the longest tenured Shark had a whale of a game.
But what shouldn’t go overlooked is the play that led to Marleau’s first goal which came mid-way through the third period. Rookie defenseman Matt Irwin, playing in just his third NHL game, made a slick, Martin Havlat-esque move to gain the Phoenix blue-line. Irwin was then able to battle the puck loose to Joe Thornton who slid it over to Marleau for a tap-in. Pretty awesome to have those two names next to you on the score-sheet for your first career point isn’t it?
“Absolutely” assured Irwin after the game. “To get one at home, in the home opener, to get your first NHL point and [to come on] Patrick Marleau’s goal from Joe Thornton, I didn’t picture it happening like that.”
The rookie blue-liner confirmed that despite the Havlat-esque dangle, he has in fact been an defenseman since pee wee. Although he quickly added that puck moving has always been something he can handle.
“Power play has [always] been a part of my game” added the 25-year-old. “Jumping up in the play is part of my responsibility, especially late in the game.”
Marleau, the eventual recipient of Irwin’s efforts, was quick to praise the rookie blue-liner.
“He’s been playing solid over” chimed the forward. “He’s made some really good moves out there, moving the puck up, heads-up plays and playing well defensively for a young guy.”
Even before Thursday’s home opener, many in the media were casually noticing just how sound Irwin has started the season. After all, these first three games of the season are his first three career games in the league. Typically you don’t see that kind of solid positioning, poise, and smarts from a defenseman making the jump from AHL to the NHL. And while it may be a small sample size, the undrafted, British Columbia native out of UMass Amherst already looks like he has a long career ahead of him.
And if you think I may be jumping the gun, just listen to the praise from Sharks head coach Todd McLellan on the young defenseman.
“He sure looks like he belongs, doesn’t he?” responded McLellan when I asked about Irwin’s performance. “He’s played extremely well since he’s been here. Not afraid to jump up, used his legs, used his speed and created a scoring opportunity for us to get back in the game, so credit to him.”
Irwin may only be getting this opportunity because of injuries to teammates and fellow defensemen Brent Burns and Jason Demers, but hey you don’t apologize for the way you get your opportunity in professional sports (just ask Colin Kaepernick), and so far Irwin is making the most of his.
In fact, while Burns will eventually knock Irwin down a spot on the depth chart, don’t be surprised if Irwin stays in the lineup even when everyone is healthy. Demers isn’t guaranteed anything after his struggles last season and Douglas Murray has a lot to prove as well. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Irwin play ahead of those two and man that sixth spot on a 100 percent healthy roster.
Simply put, Irwin has made quite the impression on both his teammates and coaches early on. Not only can he knock people off the puck in his own zone but as evidenced on Thursday, he can also create some offense at the other end.