January 30, 2013

Former Minuteman Anderson makes long-awaited NHL debut

By Andrew Merritt

Matt Anderson (left) looks to break up a pass to David Krejci during Tuesday's game between the Bruins and Devils. (Getty Images)

BOSTON — When you’re a rookie, they tell you to act like you’ve been there before.

Matt Anderson’s not exactly a rookie, and he has been here before, although it’s been a long time.

The 30-year-old West Islip, N.Y., native made his NHL debut Tuesday with the New Jersey Devils, who fell in a shootout to the Boston Bruins. It was the culmination of a very long journey for Anderson, coming more than six years after he began his pro career.

Since graduating from UMass in 2007, Anderson played with three different pro teams – the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL, and for the last two-and-a-half years back in the AHL with the Albany Devils. He has had his greatest success as a pro in Albany, racking up 40 goals and 106 points in 171 games, and in 2010-11 had a career best 23 goals and 32 assists in 76 games.

Still, a nice minor league career isn’t really what a player dreams of when he becomes a professional. It’s all about getting the call – or in Anderson’s case, the text message. That text came Monday. While Anderson was enjoying the AHL All-Star break in Southern Vermont with some friends, he was having some trouble keeping his cell phone charged.

“There was one charger, one of those Bose docks, at the house where we were staying, and I stuck it on there,” he said. “Me and my buddies were about to leave the house, and it came on, and there was a text from [Albany GM] Chris Lamoriello, saying to call him as soon as possible.”

Lamoriello, the son of New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.), had good news: The big club was calling Anderson up, and just in time for the UMass grad to come back to Boston.

Nothing has really come easy in Anderson’s hockey career, even going back to his college days in Amherst. He made a splash as a freshman in 2002-03, finishing fifth on the team in scoring with 31 points, but a shoulder injury forced him to take a medical redshirt the next year. He returned to the ice in 2004, and was fourth on the team with 20 points, even after a leg injury ended his sophomore season just 18 games in.

A solid junior and senior year followed. The Minutemen fell to New Hampshire in the Hockey East semifinals in Anderson’s senior year (“a tough loss for the Minutemen,” Anderson remembered of his last game at the Garden), but a short time later, they earned the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament victory, beating Clarkson with current L.A. King Jon Quick (Hamden, Conn.) in net, before falling to Maine in the last game of Anderson’s college career.

Then came seven years in the minor leagues. Last season, a concussion limited him to just 56 games for Albany, and as many players his age do, he started to take stock.

“Those things put things in perspective,” he said. “I got to see my niece take her first steps last year while I was out with a concussion. Everything happens for a reason, and I’m well aware of that.”

That perspective served him well Tuesday. Centering the Devils’ fourth line between former Albany teammate Jacob Josefson and enforcer Krys Barch, who also spent seven years wandering the minor-league wilderness before getting his shot with Dallas in 2006-07, Anderson settled in well, playing a total of 6:57.

“It’s just nice to get the first one out of the way. I definitely think it’ll slow down out there just a touch, myself, I’ll slow down if I get another opportunity. But at the same time, the emotions I’m feeling, I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to enjoy every minute of this with my friends and family. No one can take it away from me, that’s pretty nice.”

He even came inches away from scoring his first NHL goal. After turning the play up ice with about two minutes to go in the second period, Anderson rushed the Bruin net and nearly tipped a Stephen Gionta wrister past goaltender Tuukka Rask, who was caught going the wrong way.

“I put myself in a good spot,” he said. “You never know. Hopefully there will be a lot more of those chances.”

Importantly, he also impressed his new boss.

“I thought he did a good job,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “He gave us some good minutes, some energy and some speed out there.”

It’s been a good season for UMass alums. Mike Kostka, a former teammate of Anderson’s in Amherst, notably made the Toronto roster out of the shortened training camp. Former Minutemen Justin Braun (also a contemporary of Anderson’s) and Matt Irwin are regulars on the San Jose blue line, and Quick, of course, won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy with LA last spring.

Anderson’s story was well-known by the time the puck dropped Tuesday night. The Newark Star-Ledger, USA Today and Sporting News all had pregame stories describing his odyssey, and NESN’s Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley spoke several times about the unique path Anderson took to the NHL.

During the broadcast, Edwards quoted Lou Lamoriello as saying of Anderson’s debut, “I just hope he has fun.”

On an otherwise somber night for the visitors, the smile on the newest Devil’s face suggested he most certainly did.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.