Admittedly, Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Mathieu Joseph was pretty nervous in the first period of his NHL debut Saturday night against the Florida Panthers.
There was certainly plenty to take in.
When the Lightning came onto the ice for warmups, Joseph led the team through the tunnel and did a solo pregame lap while his teammates watched from the bench. Joseph's parents were in the AMALIE Arena stands to witness his first NHL game. Joseph was introduced individually to the fans as part of the Opening Night pregame festivities. And he would be matched up at times against Florida's top line of Evgenii Dadonov, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, one of the league's most underrated and skilled line combinations.
Joseph had an up-and-down opening period. But he recovered quickly to put together a solid performance after the first intermission and was a pivotal player in the Bolts' rally over the Panthers.
"Even though you're trying not to think about it, it's still your first period ever," Joseph said from his locker room stall following the game. "I kind of reset in the second and took a couple deep breaths."
It also helped Joseph to have a familiar face by his side.
Anthony Cirelli was Joseph's centerman for much of 2017-18 season while both played for the AHL Syracuse Crunch, that is until Cirelli was recalled to the Lightning on March 1 and played every game with the Bolts through the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Cirelli and Joseph had remarkable success together as a duo for the Crunch.
Joseph, the winger, scored 15 goals and tallied 53 points during his first pro season to lead Syracuse for scoring. Cirelli, the center, put up 37 points in 51 games before going up to Tampa Bay and making his NHL debut.
That familiarity allowed Joseph to settle down after a forgettable opening period. The rookie saw over a minute of action on the power play. He was an integral part of a penalty kill that went 5-for-5 against the Panthers and produced the game-tying goal. And he even came over the boards for a shift during the 3-on-3 overtime session, illustrating how much trust the coaching staff has in him so early in his career.
"They had success with each other in the minors and they kind of slot into that role for us where actually they are providing offense but they are having some big assignments and playing against some good lines," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after his team's practice session Wednesday at the Ice Sports Forum in preparation for regular season game No. 2 Thursday versus Vancouver. "It's a lot for a rookie to come into the league and have to do that. But he handled it great the first game. But to have two guys that have played with each other, talked to each other on the bench, it helps them."
Despite being technically a rookie himself with only 18 regular season games to his credit, Cirelli served as a veteran, calming influence for Joseph. Last season, Cirelli scored a goal and tallied an assist in his NHL debut March 1 at Dallas, one of only five Lightning players ever to record multiple points in their first game. From that point on, Cirelli was a mainstay in the lineup. He finished the regular season with five goals and six assists in 17 games and continued to have success in the playoffs, where he led all Lightning forwards for shorthanded time on ice and, according to Cooper, held his own against some of the top centers in the league like Boston's Patrice Bergeron and Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov.
"He's definitely a guy I'm looking up to," Joseph said. "I know he came in last year, no expectations, didn't really know what was going on, and he made his path and his way onto the team. He's a good example of working hard and taking your opportunities. Playing with him is obviously easy for me."
Video: FLA@TBL: Cirelli puts home SHG to tie the game
Cirelli said having Joseph on his right makes his job easier too, the chemistry the two have built over the previous season continuing into the NHL.
"We kind of read off each other," Cirelli said. "We're always talking. We're good buddies off the ice. It just makes playing the game so much easier."
Joseph and Cirelli played on the same line throughout much of training camp and, at least early, appear to be a duo the Lightning coaching staff wants to keep together.
For their part, Cirelli and Joseph are just lining up wherever the coaching staff tells them to and enjoying their time, both in the NHL and playing with one another.
"We're always talking out there and seeing what we can do better and what we can do right," Cirelli said. "To see him there in the same position I was in last year, we're just going out there and having a lot of fun playing with each other."