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Matthew Peca makes the most of his NHL opportunity

Lightning forward Matthew Peca scored his first NHL goal against Winnipeg on Tuesday

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Peca's first career goal

WPG@TBL: Peca snaps puck top shelf for first NHL goal

Matthew Peca unloads a hard wrist shot from the circle that beats Connor Hellebuyck up high for the first goal of his career

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Matthew Peca will forever be the answer to a trivia question involving his alma mater.

Who was the first player in Quinnipiac hockey history to score a goal in the National Hockey League?

Answer: Matthew Peca

The 23-year-old center netted his first league goal in only his fourth game in the Tampa Bay Lightning's 6-4 loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday. With the Lightning trailing 1-0 early in the second period, Peca took a lead pass from Vladislav Namestnikov and entered the offensive zone, Andrej Sustr jumping into the play on his left to create a 2-on-1 advantage. As he reached the right dot, Peca unleashed a wrist shot to the far top corner.

Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck wasn't quick enough to react to the perfectly-placed shot.

The goal tied the game briefly 1-1.

"I had an idea during that play exactly what I was going to do, and for it to work out as well as it did, it kind of startled me a little bit," Peca said following a practice session for the Lightning at AMALIE Arena on Wednesday. "I surprised myself putting it there. But, yeah, it's a surreal moment. The rest of the game was a little bit off balance, but in that moment it was pretty special."

Peca has experienced plenty of surreal moments in the last week. On December 27, he was recalled from AHL Syracuse, where he recorded five goals and 12 assists in 28 games, ranking fifth on the Crunch for helpers. A day later, he was skating in his first-ever NHL game, facing the Original Six Montreal Canadiens and goaltender Carey Price, regarded as one of the best - if not the best - goaltenders in the world.

Three nights later, Peca recorded his first career NHL point after notching an assist on Alex Killorn's second-period goal, Peca outbattling Derek Ryan along the wall to gain the puck and making a nice backhanded pass through traffic to feed Killorn on the doorstep.

"He's played very well, a goal and an assist the last couple games, give him credit, he's a smart player," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "Kids today, they're coming up and they have the conditioning and the skill and everything, but they have that hockey sense and they have confidence. They're not intimidated by the league, the young kids today, and that's a great thing. This kid has hockey sense. He knows where to be and when to be there, and he has really good skills and speed. You put that combination together and you can play."

Peca didn't always know he could play in the NHL. At just 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, he's one of the smaller players in the league but fits well in the mold of similar diminutive Lightning forwards like Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point. When he was recalled to Tampa Bay, he wondered if he'd be able to keep up physically. In the Lightning locker room, two stalls to his left stands Victor Hedman, as imposing a figure as there is in the league at 6-foot-6, 223 pounds. A few more lockers down, Jason Garrison changes out of his practice jersey and into street clothes, his chiseled physique mocking anyone who went for that second helping of food over the holidays.

"You always have those questions because you haven't - I mean, I've played some exhibition games but nothing in season, nothing with meaning," Peca said. "So, I was excited more than worried about the opportunity. And after my first couple of games, I started to feel more and more comfortable and build more confidence."

With the Lightning starting to get healthier - Ryan Callahan returned Tuesday after missing the previous 15 games to a lower-body injury - the Crunch call-ups will start to slowly make their return to Syracuse. Peca, however, has given the Lightning pause to consider whether he should remain with the NHL club.

"He was good tonight," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said in his post-game press conference following the Winnipeg loss. "He was, again, somebody that is making the most of his call-up, and every game he plays, it's making it a lot tougher to send him down when, eventually, we get guys back."

In Peca, the Lightning are getting a well-rounded player without a lot of weaknesses, one with speed and skill that is also responsible in the defensive end.

"I pride myself on (being a complete player)," Peca said. "I just try to work as hard as I can to help in all situations...I think I was always that guy. I think there was always a willingness to do it too. I had a great junior coach. I think that's kind of where it started, where you really realize that if you want to compete at the next level, you need to round out your game. There are not a lot of one-dimensional players around anymore. It's something that's always been pretty important."

After scoring his debut goal, Peca said he received a number of congratulatory calls and texts from friends and family. There were also a few from his former Quinnipiac teammates and a couple from former teachers too.

"They were all pretty happy," he said about becoming the first Bobcat to score in the NHL. "It's kind of a historical moment for the program."

It was a historic moment for Peca too, one of many the youngster has racked up in a relative short amount of time during his stint in the NHL.

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