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Islanders' Moulson takes a rocky road to the NHL

Matt Moulson #26 of the New York Islanders

Matt Moulson #26 of the New York Islanders skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum. (October 3, 2009) Credit: Getty Images

On the drive home after seeing his son Matt get cut from yet another Triple-A hockey team, Scott Moulson looked over at the 15-year-old and leveled with him.

He saw Matt outplay other kids who made the team and he saw Matt refuse to give up during tryouts despite being so sick that he was throwing up in the dressing room afterward.

But that was simply not enough.

"If you want to continue to play hockey," Scott told his son, "then you have to work harder and play so much better than everyone else that a team can't afford to cut you."

"That," said Matt, now 26, "has been my philosophy ever since."

And it has to be.

Because as much as Islanders fans may view him as a sudden miracle of goal-scoring, some apparition who magically materialized in the offseason to invigorate a goal-starved team, Moulson endured a lengthy, arduous, obstacle-riddled road to his current success as the team's top-line left wing and leading goal-scorer.

His circuitous route to the NHL took its first detour more than 10 years ago when Moulson - criticized for his skating and size (he's now 6-1, 206) - was cut at every single Triple-A and junior hockey team tryout he attended.

Moulson shrugged off the rejections.

"Matt has tremendous character," said Frank Del Monte, Moulson's family friend and childhood hockey coach in Mississauga, Ontario. "If you tell him 'no,' he'll find a way to prove that 'no' was the wrong answer."

Instead of dwelling on the snubs, Moulson accepted an invitation to play Double-A hockey for Jim McGuire, a coach who made hockey fun again and gave Moulson the opportunity denied to him elsewhere.

"What could've been a down year," his father said, "turned out to be a positive one."

After a successful season in Double-A, Moulson went on to play junior hockey in Guelph and then four seasons at Cornell University from 2002 to 2006.

After Cornell, Moulson was signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Kings and assigned to the Manchester Monarchs, their AHL affiliate. He played a full season for the Monarchs in 2006-07, and 22 games for the Kings and 57 games for Manchester in 2007-08.

In 2008 he made the Kings out of training camp. He finally had cracked an NHL lineup from the get-go. He thought he had arrived.

But his joy and satisfaction did not last long. He was abruptly demoted and sent back to Manchester after only seven games. The reason? Kings GM Dean Lombardi told Moulson he was "too complacent."

"That's what made me so angry," Moulson said. "I've never been complacent."

Humble and hard-working, yes. But complacent? For someone shunned and discarded at practically every level, that didn't fit. Regardless, Moulson shelved his anger and trudged forward.

"He didn't bring it to the rink," Manchester coach Mark Morris said. "He just got back on the horse and kept riding. No sulking, no pouting."

Despite being sidelined six weeks with a knee injury, Moulson finished the season with 47 points (21 goals, 26 assists) in 54 games for Manchester and garnered interest from the Islanders, who signed him as a free agent in July.

Impressed with Moulson's scoring ability in the AHL, coach Scott Gordon wanted to take a chance on him despite the fact that he was a late bloomer.

"Sometimes when a guy is that age, you wonder, 'Why hasn't he made it?' " Gordon said. "Sometimes you look for the flaws first instead of the assets."

Moulson quickly emerged in training camp with his nose for the net and led the team in preseason scoring, essentially forcing the Islanders' hand. They had to keep him.

"I just needed a chance - a true chance - to show what I can do," Moulson said.

His production in training camp proved to be no fluke. While spending almost the first month of this season patiently plugging away while living out of a Long Island hotel room, Moulson not only continued to contribute - he has eight goals and eight assists in 19 games before last night - but also developed a keen chemistry on the ice with top draft pick John Tavares.

Tavares, who has seen Moulson's incomparable work ethic while training with him during summers in Ontario, hasn't been surprised by Moulson's rapid ascent, albeit through a path that was distinctively different from his own.

"He's had to prove himself every step of the way, and it's a credit to him," Tavares said. "He's a good friend and he deserves everything he got."

Could Moulson's Cinderella story fade? Could he fall short of the expectations that he has raised for himself?

Nope. Now that he has gotten his shot, don't expect him to let it slip away. Moulson won't even entertain the possibility of failing. Not after everything he's had to overcome.

"I don't think I would ever let that happen," he said. "There's not even that thought in my mind."

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