CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Before the red light flickered, before the referee signaled the good goal, before he was mobbed by his teammates, before the weight was lifted and his lifelong dream was realized, Jacob MacDonald soaked in and savored a very brief moment of silence.
"I knew I scored when I didn't hear the sound of the boards behind the net," MacDonald said when asked to recount his first NHL goal after Monday's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "It was kind of a screen shot. Their guy cut in front of me after I shot it, so I wasn't sure right away where the puck went. But when you don't hear the boards behind the net, you know. You get that feeling. In that split second, I knew it was in."
MacDonald's goal came just three shifts into the first NHL game of his career. Sneaking down from the blue line towards the center of the left circle, the 25-year-old defenseman collected a pass from Vincent Trocheck and fired a wrist shot past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to open the scoring just 5:58 into Saturday's season-opening 2-1 shootout loss in Tampa.
"It was a moment I'll never forget," said MacDonald, whose goal now stands as the fastest ever by a rookie defenseman in franchise history. "I can't really describe it. It was just pure happiness in that moment. I've worked a long time. Obviously that work isn't done, but that was a very, very cool moment. I was really happy that my family was there to experience it with me."
Video: FLA@TBL: MacDonald scores in first NHL game
After learning on Friday that he'd be making his long-awaited debut, MacDonald said his family quickly mobilized to make it down to Amalie Arena in time for puck drop the following day. And while his father, stepmother and girlfriend all made the trip, it was the presence of his younger brother, Joel, that MacDonald said caught him by surprise and made him take a step back.
An enlisted man, Joel MacDonald is currently stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina but was able to fly down to catch the game since it happened to fall on the weekend. After signing up for the National Guard at 17, he later transferred to the Army at 20, where his strong commitment to military service has often kept him from attending most of his older brother's hockey games.
In the moment, MacDonald said he felt like it'd been a decade since Joel saw him play live.
"It wasn't 10 years, but it felt like 10 years," he said. "He's maybe seen me play about three games in that time."
Following the game, MacDonald didn't have much time to catch up with his family. They took a few photos and talked about the goal, but that was about it. For although it was the first game of his NHL career, it was just the first of 82 for the Panthers -- and he had a plane home to catch.
"It's one out of 82," MacDonald said. "I'm just focusing on Thursday now, getting back to work… I'll remember that night forever, especially since my family was there. It was a lot of fun, but like I said, it's about the next game now. Overall, other than not getting a win, it was pretty perfect."
It's that game-by-game approach that has helped MacDonald traverse his long road to the NHL.
Undrafted out of Cornell University in 2015, he went on to suit up in 110 games in both the AHL and ECHL, climbing every rung of hockey's minor-league ladder before finally breaking out last season with New Jersey's AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Named to the AHL's First All-Star Team, the Portland, Oregon, native led the league in both goals (20) and points (55) by a defenseman.
Seeing that potential, the Panthers inked MacDonald to a two-year, two-way deal this summer.
"It shows his character," veteran defenseman Keith Yandle said. "He's a hard-working kid. He's obviously taken the hard road -- playing in college, then the ECHL and AHL. But if you look up his stats and you see the goals he put up last season, that's not by accident. Obviously he can score goals. As a core, our defense wants to help put up numbers. He helps bring that, too."
Impressed by MacDonald's play in his debut, Panthers coach Bob Boughner announced after Tuesday's practice that the up-and-coming defenseman will be in the lineup once again when the Columbus Blue Jackets visit BB&T Center for Thursday's home opener.
"I think he responded really well," Boughner said. "We talked a few days before about his hockey sense, how he gets out of trouble with his hockey sense. He has an ability to join plays and jump in at the right time, and he did that right away on that goal. It was good to see, and probably a big relief for him. He's looking forward. He's back in Thursday."