There are fewer worlds smaller than the one NHL players live in.
Everyone in the league seems to know — or have a common relationship with — everyone else, some how, some way.
A prime example of that is the Panthers’ defensive pairing of veteran Jason Demers and rookie Mike Matheson.
At first glance, the two wouldn’t have a connection.
But this is hockey, so, they naturally do.
When Demers signed with the Panthers as a free agent during the summer, he was told about Matheson being one of Florida’s defensive options after a strong showing in the playoffs and at the World Championships.
“It was just funny,” Demers said. “Someone told me about a Matheson on the Panthers and I was like, “I wonder if that’s him?’ ”
Sure enough, the Mike Matheson whom Demers remembered from his high school days in suburban Montreal was indeed the same player the Panthers expect big things from.
Today, the two are not only teammates but linemates.
“He is a really smart player, moves the puck real well,” said Matheson, who scored his first NHL goal in Florida’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Lightning on Tuesday night. “His defensive game is rock solid.”
Matheson was part of the athletic program at John Rennie High, joining the varsity program after Demers had moved on. Demers knew of Matheson through his older sister, Kelly Matheson, who was a standout hockey player at the high school.
When Demers first walked into the Florida locker room, Matheson tried to introduce himself but Demers stopped him.
“I’ve known him since he was this tall,” said Demers, demonstrating. “When he came up to me and said, ‘Hi, I’m Mike,’ I couldn’t believe it. I remembered him vaguely, being around the school. He was just a little kid and now he’s carrying me.”
The two have been a strong defensive pairing for the Panthers through the first three games of the season as they seem to play off the other’s strengths quite well. Both are very smart hockey players with strong defensive instincts. The two can also move the puck up the ice and have offensive instincts.
“I think they complement each other real well,” said Florida assistant coach Scott Allen, who coached Matheson at the AHL level last season. “I like how they constantly communicate. Each guy brings a few different traits to the table, and they’re still working on their game.”
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Said Demers: “It takes time for D-pairs to learn each other, but we communicate very well. So far it has gone well. We just have to stay consistent, do something every game to help the team win.”
Matheson’s first NHL goal was a beauty. He gave Florida a 3-2 lead over the Lightning with 4:08 left, one-timing a pass from Greg McKegg (Demers got the secondary assist) on a delayed penalty and beating goalie Ben Bishop. Florida’s lead held up until Steven Stamkos scored with 5.5 seconds left after the Lightning went with an extra attacker.
After a scoreless overtime — helped along by strong penalty killing from Demers — the Panthers lost in the sixth round of the shootout.
“It was definitely a moment I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Matheson of his first goal.
▪ Demers and Matheson aren’t the only NHL players to graduate from John Rennie High. On Tuesday, the Lightning honored Rennie grad Vincent Lecavalier before the game. Former Panthers enforcer and current South Florida youth coach Peter Worrell also went there.
▪ Matheson’s goal wasn’t the only milestone on Tuesday; McKegg’s assist on the shot was his first NHL point.
Thursday: Capitals at Panthers
▪ When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
▪ TV/radio: FSFL; WMEN 640, WZAB 880, WMYM 990.
▪ Series: Washington leads 61-47-9.
▪ Scouting report: Florida won two of three against the Caps last season, its first season series win against Washington in five years. … The Caps lead the league in allowing one goal per game, as they’ve won two games in a row after losing their opener in Pittsburgh in a shootout.