Mike Matheson only played in three regular season games for the Panthers last year before he was surprisingly put into the lineup in Game 2 of the playoffs and never surrendered his spot.
Matheson showed the Panthers he belonged in the NHL during the postseason.
Thursday, the 22-year-old rookie defenseman proved he could be an impact player as well as his big play in overtime led to Florida’s game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the visiting Devils in the season opener for both.
Matheson, a first-round draft pick in 2012 from Boston College, made a terrific hit on New Jersey’s Damon Severson against the boards behind the Devils’ net.
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The crushing hit — which led to some jokes about the Dolphins perhaps showing interest — separated Severson from the puck; Matheson quickly corralled it and fired across the ice to Sasha Barkov.
The Florida center one-timed Matheson’s perfect pass into the back of the net to lead Florida to an opening night win.
“It was nice to be able to add to the offense, get one back,” Matheson said, saying he took the blame for New Jersey’s first goal of the night.
“Barkov is so good, he was definitely out there for a while controlling the puck. He makes playing with him so easy.”
Barkov said after the game that the quick thinking and passing ability of Matheson led to an easy goal, saying Matheson driving toward Schneider before passing left the goalie watching Matheson instead of Barkov.
Schneider never had a chance at the puck.
“I didn’t call for it, but he definitely saw me over there in front of the net,” Barkov said. “It was a great play behind the net and then there was a goalie stick and another stick in the way yet he was able to get the pass through to me and I got to shoot into the empty net.
“He looked really good in the playoffs. He’s a young guy — well, older than me — and came on in the playoffs and played great. We’re very lucky to have him with the team.”
Matheson had a strong first professional season with Florida’s AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine, last season before being called up at the end of Florida’s regular season.
Although Matheson didn’t do much to separate himself during the season, once the playoffs started and he got a chance to play, his game took off. The Panthers were so impressed with the five games he played against the Islanders, the thought of Matheson continuing to hone his game in the minors was pretty much put to rest.
Matheson showed the Panthers he was ready to be an everyday NHL defenseman and his strong play has only solidified his spot.
“He made a big play, in overtime it’s 3-on-3 play, basically man coverage,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “He knocked his guy off the puck, created some separation and made the pass to Barky. He had a real good game, real solid.”
▪ Roberto Luongo made 23 saves on Thursday and will be back between the pipes on Saturday against the visiting Detroit Red Wings.
James Reimer, Florida’s new backup who signed a five-year deal during the offseason, is expected to get his first start Tuesday in Tampa against the Lightning.
Saturday: Red Wings at Panthers
When/where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center.
TV/radio: FSFL; 1360-AM, 560-AM (following UM football), 640-AM, 990-AM (Spanish).
Series: Detroit leads 19-12-5.
Scouting report: Detroit didn’t start its season the way it wanted as Tampa Bay scored four in the third period to beat the Wings 6-4 on Thursday night. Florida has held the upper hand on its new divisional rival lately, winning eight of 13 since the 2013-14 season. The two teams split last year.