Florida Panthers

Unheralded Panthers defenseman MacDonald on target in his NHL debut

From left, Florida Panthers left wing Mike Hoffman, center Vincent Trocheck and defenseman Jacob MacDonald celebrate MacDonald’s goal during the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.
From left, Florida Panthers left wing Mike Hoffman, center Vincent Trocheck and defenseman Jacob MacDonald celebrate MacDonald’s goal during the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. AP

Every player to reach the National Hockey League realizes a childhood dream.

Not many wait as long as Florida Panthers defenseman Jacob MacDonald.

Fewer than that enjoy the type of debut MacDonald had in Florida’s season-opening 2-1 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

The undrafted 25-year-old, who signed with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent this summer, made an immediate impact for his new team. On MacDonald’s third shift, he cut down from the left point to collect a pass from Vincent Trocheck and fired a shot past Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy at 5:58 of the first period.

The goal was MacDonald’s first NHL shot.

“As a kid it’s obviously a dream to play, and then to have a shift like that, it was awesome,’’ MacDonald said. “It was really exciting.’’

Like many rookies making their debut, MacDonald had family in the crowd — including his father, Will; stepmother, Lori, and younger brother Joel. But after finding out late in training camp that he had made the team, MacDonald’s mother, Larinda, was unable to make it from her home in rural Idaho to Florida for the game.

So MacDonald arranged to have a satellite dish installed at her home so she could watch him play. The installation was completed Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before MacDonald suited up.

“We finally got her set up so she could watch,’’ MacDonald said. “So that was good.’’

It has been quite a road to the NHL for MacDonald, who was born in Oregon and grew up in Michigan.

MacDonald played two seasons with Waterloo in the United States Hockey League, where he was overlooked by NHL teams during his draft-eligible years. His next step took him to Cornell University — he also registered a point as a freshman on his first collegiate shift — for a four-year stint where he scored four goals in four seasons for the Big Red.

Those numbers did not jump out to NHL scouts when MacDonald finished school in 2015. So he signed with the Elmira Jackals of the East Coast Hockey League, where he played a season and a half, was named to the ECHL all-rookie team in 2016 after scoring 17 goals, and eventually got a one-game tryout with the Springfield Falcons in the AHL.

The next season he returned to the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye before catching the eye of the Albany Devils — the New Jersey Devils’ farm team — and signed a tryout contract that led to an AHL deal for the remainder of that season and an extension after he scored eight goals and 24 points in 34 games to close out the year.

In his first full season in the AHL last year, MacDonald led the league’s defensemen with 20 goals and 55 points and earned an AHL All-Star berth with Albany.

When MacDonald reached the summer in search of his first NHL contract, he opted to leave the Devils and sign with the Panthers, agreeing to a one-year, two-way deal July 2, believing he had a better chance to reach the NHL.

Looks like he made the right choice.

“It was so great to see him a part of it,’’ Florida coach Bob Boughner said of MacDonald after Saturday’s game. “We’ve talked about how long of a road it was for him to get here and to get rewarded [with the goal] like that, it was nice to see. And he gets named third star on top of that, so what a night for him and his family.’’

Injury updates: Center Derek MacKenzie left the game in the first period with an upper-body injury and did not return. The team is expected to provide updates on him and Luongo after Monday’s practice.

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