In the first period of a game last month, Florida defenseman Mike Matheson lost track of the puck and the player he was trying to defend near goalie Roberto Luongo.
Matheson could only watch as Ottawa’s Ryan Dzingle slammed the puck past his goalie.
Perhaps last season, Matheson would have tried to crawl into a hole on the bench, the miscue bothering him throughout the rest of the game and basically ending any effectiveness he could offer.
But this isn’t last year. In the next period, Matheson fired a strong slapshot off a faceoff to score his second goal of the game and tie the score. The Panthers, thanks in part to Matheson’s two goals, beat the Senators 6-5.
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“He would have really beat himself up over that, and it would have affected the rest of his game,” said Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe, who had Matheson for the start of his pro career with the AHL’s Portland Pirates last season.
“It just shows how much he has matured as a player and a person. A mistake doesn’t bother him; he just rolled with it.”
Matheson, 22, is in his second pro season after three standout years at Boston College.
Florida’s top draft pick following its playoff season in 2012, Matheson was considered the top prospect in the Panthers’ system for years.
Since leaving BC after his junior year, Matheson has given credence to his lofty rankings.
Said one NHL scout: “I think he’s their best defenseman right now.”
Although he spent most of last season in Portland, Maine, with the Pirates, he was called up at the end of last year as Florida made its run to the Atlantic Division title.
“Going from last year into this year, the thing I really wanted to work on was my consistency,” said Matheson, who played in his 52nd game of the season for the Panthers on Thursday night.
“I’ve never really played this many games in my life, so I try to limit the mistakes and be more consistent in the decisions I make with the puck.”
Matheson had only played in three regular-season games for the Panthers last season, but after Florida lost Game 1 of its opening-round playoff series against the Islanders, then-coach Gerard Gallant made a surprising lineup change before Game 2.
He benched veteran Jakub Kindl in favor of the rookie from Boston College.
Not only did Matheson not look out of place, he excelled and never left the lineup — his five postseason games were a touch more than the amount he played in during the regular season.
“He has a special set of skills; the way he skates, the way he moves the puck,” teammate Derek MacKenzie said.
“We are really seeing him mature and come into his own as a player. He’s here to learn and get better. He’s not relying on his raw talent. It has been fun to watch.”
Said defensive partner Alex Petrovic: “He is just so easy to play with; he’s never in bad position. Even though this is his first full NHL season, I think he’s one of the best defensemen around.”
▪ The Panthers kick off a five-game trip on Saturday in Nashville, with MacKenzie saying after Thursday night’s demoralizing 6-3 loss to the Kings that Florida’s season might depend on how it plays against the Western Conference in the coming weeks.
Aside from its five-game trip to Nashville, three games in California and the finale in St. Louis, Florida will host Edmonton and Calgary upon its return to Sunrise.
“I personally think this is huge,” MacKenzie said. “The season is on the line right here.”
Saturday: Panthers at Predators
When/where: 2 p.m.; Bridgestone Arena, Nashville.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
Series: Nashville leads 12-10-3.
Scouting report: This is the second meeting between the two in a month with the Panthers winning 2-1 on Jan. 6 in Sunrise thanks to a third period goal from Jonathan Marchessault.