SUNRISE, Fla. - Mike Matheson's rookie season started off with a bang -- literally.
Matheson, a first-round draft pick of the Panthers in 2012, set up the game-winning goal in Florida's Opening Night contest against the Devils on Oct. 13, knocking New Jersey's Damon Severson off the puck behind the net with a booming hit before feeding Aleksander Barkov for a wide-open goal to secure a 2-1 victory in overtime.
"I didn't really find it was my best game actually," a modest Matheson said after the game. "The shift in the overtime period was good, but I've still got a lot to work on… That's what it's such a long season, you get to work on all those things to get ready for the end of the year."
True to his word, Matheson didn't rest on the laurels of his early-season heroics, making sure to always put in plenty of extra hours of hard work on the ice and in the gym throughout his first season in the NHL. With each passing week, as with any first-year defenseman, there were plenty of ups and downs to analyze, but with every game - good or bad - the talented rearguard believes he improved.
"I think coming into this year it was hard to have expectations what this season would look like for me," Matheson said after cleaning out his locker at BB&T Center in April. "My main focus was just to make the team and to go from there. As the season went on, I think I had bigger and bigger expectations. I think, overall, it was a good start, but I wish I could have done more."
"I think my consistency got better and better as the season went on. I think that's one area that I struggled with when I was younger, coming up through college, and even last year. I think from game to game I was a lot more consistent, but there's definitely still some room for improvement.
At 23, Matheson tallied 17 points (7-10-17) while averaging 21:03 of ice time in 81 games. His seven goals were third most among the team's defenseman, trailing only Aaron Ekblad (10) and Jason Demers (9).
Looking ahead, Matheson hopes to improve upon his offensive numbers by earning more time on Florida's power play, a unit where he spent a total of only 41:05 on throughout the entire 2016-17 season.
"I think that's one area that I've been relied on for a long time while I was younger and coming up through college," Matheson said. "I don't think I showed, when I did get an opportunity, very well. I didn't think I deserved to be on it this year. I think that's an area where I'd like to get better on and earn a spot next year."
As for an encore performance, Matheson, admittedly eager for the term "rookie" to no longer preface his position, believes that the lessons he learned throughout his first season with the Panthers should help him get off to an even better start in 2017-18.
"It's going to be a little weird not being a rookie next season, but as this season went on I got more and more comfortable," Matheson said. "I think being able to build on that will be important at the beginning of next year to get a good start."
If you can manage to look past his silky-smooth skating, blistering top-end speed and powerful slap shots, you'll quickly see that there's a lot more to Matheson's game than just his offensive upside.
In fact, the multi-talented blue liner has quite the knack for using hard-nosed, gritty play to disrupt opposing offense, as evidenced by his team-leading 118 blocked shots 118 and 69 hits.
"I think it's all situational," Matheson said of his gritty side. "Each game presents different situations where grit may be needed more or less. Sometimes it's better to just separate the guy with a poke check instead of big hit. Other times you do need to be tough in front of your net and stuff like that. It depends on how the game is going and who your opponent is."
Matheson recorded to the first two-goal game of his NHL career to help lead the Panthers to a thrilling 6-5 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 31 at the BB&T Center. In addition to a pair of goals, the Pointe-Claire, Quebec native also led the Panthers in blocked shots (2) and shots on goal (7) in 18:58 of ice time.
Video: OTT@FLA: Matheson rips puck in off faceoff for second
GOAL OF THE YEAR
It took about a week for Matheson's smile to fade after this one.
On this play, Matheson blasts a one-timer from the left circle through the legs of Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop for the first goal of his NHL career, giving the Panthers 3-2 lead late in the 3rd period of the Oct. 18 contest.
Video: FLA@TBL: Matheson nets first NHL goal for late lead
"It was something that I'd dreamed of my entire life," Matheson said. "I didn't even know it went in at first. Hopefully they'll be more to come… I'm not really sure where I'm going to put the puck. It'll probably end up at my parents' house."