"So... why Matthew Lombardi? What's the deal with that?"
Based on the very few games Ducks fans have seen Lombardi play with this team, you might wonder why I would target him as a favorite player. I mean, he hasn't exactly had a chance to show what he's capable of... and it doesn't help that he's been playing with an injury since the week after we acquired him!
But actually, my history with Lombardi goes way back, even before Bobby Ryan got his big break.
When I first started going to Ducks games, I didn't know enough about the team to have favorite players. I mean, I recognized certain players' names from off the radio - Scott Niedermayer, Giguere, Teemu Selanne - but I couldn't watch games on TV (long story for another day) and radio doesn't give you much more than play-by-play and audio interviews.
So my first Duck games were, ironically enough, against the Calgary Flames. I don't know why, I guess those were just the tickets that happened to be available. I only saw two games during the first half of the '08-'09 season, and they were both against the Flames. As thrilling as it was to see the Ducks live, my eye was also caught by a speedy little forward in a Calgary Flames sweater.
I watched him score on us on a breakaway, and I watched him speed around our defenders, deftly handling the puck like it was glued to his stick. '#18 is pretty fast, who is he?'
According to the program, #18 was Matthew Lombardi. Hmm!
Over the next couple of weeks, I curiously Googled and YouTubed the Montreal native, and learned he had been quite the rookie sensation. Drafted in the 3rd round by the Flames in 2002, he scored a hat-trick and multiple shorthanded goals his rookie year, and was a Calder nominee. He was the Canadian point leader (6 goals, 6 assists) in the 2007 IIHF World Championships, helping Team Canada win the gold.
I also learned that he was the recipient of a nasty elbow to the head, thanks to a Red Wing during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs. The injury kept him off the ice for many months. Sadly, it would be the first in a long line of concussions and upper-body injuries.
In interviews, he was reserved, but warm... engaging, good-natured, with a sweet smile that melted my heart. Just a really honest, hard-working guy with a skating finesse I'd never seen before. I instantly took a liking to him.
And later that season he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes, a mere 6-hour drive from the Ponda. I adopted the Yotes as my second team, and drove out to my first PHX game in the fall of 2009 (home opener vs CBJ).
In March of 2010, I met Lombardi for the first time, thanks to a Phoenix friend who offered me a VIP ticket to the Coyotes Carnival, an annual fundraiser that got rescheduled to the weekend that I just happened to be in Phoenix for a Ducks-Yotes game. I remember shaking as my friend introduced me to him: "She's from California, but she's a Coyotes fan and you're her favorite player." He smiled shyly, signed the picture I'd brought, and posed for a picture with me. My friend teased me afterwards, but I didn't care. I was on cloud nine!
Lombardi had a great year with the Coyotes, centering the top line with fellow speedster Scottie Upshall and captain Shane Doan. Together, Lombardi and Upshall were unstoppable. Lombo had one of his best seasons, going 19-34-53 in 78 games played, topped by a run in the post-season. Undoubtedly his success helped him land a lucrative contract with the Nashville Predators when he hit the market as a free agent that summer.
Of course, I bought tickets to every Ducks-Predators game at the Ponda that season, even though I hated the Ducks chances against the Preds. Remember, this was the season following the Ducks departure from the playoffs at the expense of one Pekka Rinne... the last thing I wanted to do was see more of him! But I did it for Lombo.
And then he suffered another horrible hit which cost him the entire season after playing just 2 preseason games with Nashville.
It was never as easy to follow Lombo outside of Phoenix. Nobody had anything to report, except that he wasn't playing. When he got traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and scored the game-winning goal in his first game with them, I hoped he'd found his was back to on-ice success. When Toronto traded him back to Phoenix, I was ecstatic.
He's back!!! Thanks to the lockout, the newly-formed condensed schedule allowed me to spend five days in Yotes country, with three ANA-PHX games to enjoy. There was another injury, a shoulder that would have him out 4-6 weeks. I held my breath and was thankful when he recovered faster than projected, which meant he'd be playing during those ANA-PHX games.
It had been three years since our first and only "conversation," but this time I was able to tell him how happy I was that he had returned to Phoenix. He was thankful, and happily signed the Coyotes jersey which bore his number from his first stint in PHX. He was now wearing #8 (ironically, Scottie Upshall's old number), but signed my jersey with the appropriate #15.
The Yotes won the two games played in PHX in overtime (Lombo scored in the first and assisted on a goal in the second), and the Ducks won the game played back in ANA. But even with those points, Lombardi wasn't playing nearly as well as Phoenix had hoped he would.
Surprise of all surprises, the Ducks acquired him less than a month later in a trade that sent Brandon McMillan to PHX.
I knew the Ducks were looking for a second-line center, and I had even jokingly tweeted about picking up Lombardi the day before, but I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would actually happen. I was looking through the clothing racks at Marshalls for discounted hockey threads when my phone blew up with texts and tweets.
It was actually quite overwhelming.
Looking back now, I sorta wish I had been alone in my excitement. I'm pretty sure 99% of the Twitter Duck fan attention given to him and his subsequent play wouldn't have happened if these fans hadn't already heard of him through me. It made it difficult to handle his slow start in Anaheim, but it was more difficult watching the Ducks coaching staff attempt to fit a round peg into a square hole.
The Ducks play a grinding, dump-and-chase game. Forwards dump pucks into the offensive zone and chase them down, battling in corners to try to regain possession. I can imagine this system is particularly frustrating if you're not a physical forward. If Lombardi had ever been a grinding, cycling, hitting forward, he definitely wasn't anymore with his injury/concussion history. His game is one of speed, puck-handling, finding open ice and dashing into the offensive zone while controlling the puck. Nowadays, he goes out of his way to avoid contact.
And while Lombo usually held his own in the faceoff circle, his percentages were pretty abysmal those first few games in Anaheim.
It didn't help that my Ducks had all but clinched a playoff berth and were playing some of the laziest offensive games ever.
It didn't help that the defense couldn't seem to connect a stretch pass through neutral ice if their lives depended on it.
It didn't help that Lombo's shoulder either didn't heal properly, or was reinjured, only one week after his acquisition--which would help explain his faceoff slump. I had suspected he might have been injured, because every time I happened to catch him after morning skate, it was because he was the last player to leave. Must've been receiving treatment.
He had been excited about coming to a team in playoff contention, but he spent the post-season watching playoffs from the press box as a scratch.
Either way, I know he's not happy here. As much as I want him to stay, I would rather he be with a team that knows how to utilize his skills. I've said before that he has maybe five years at most, left in the NHL... and I want those to be happy years for him. He's a hockey player, he wants to play, and I want to see him play. I thoroughly enjoyed Lombardi's time as an Anaheim Duck and I'm glad I got the opportunity to see him play here and to spend time with him at a charity event. I'll always remember that!
Wherever you're off to next, Lombo, I'll be cheering for you. And I'll see you the next time your team passes through Anaheim.