CALGARY – Shawn Matthias made his NHL debut in 2008, a fresh-faced 19-year-old joining the Panthers on an emergency loan from his junior team in Belleville, Ontario.
Jacques Martin, the Panthers coach at the time, wanted to make the transition as easy as possible for Matthias, putting him up on the top line and asking captain Olli Jokinen to slide over to wing to make room for the kid.
Jokinen so did without question, helping Matthias get two goals in the four games he played in before being sent back to the bus league.
Until Thursday night, Matthias hasn't really been surrounded with that much offensive skill.
Matthias, now 22, was scheduled to line up as the Panthers second line center for Thursday's game against the Flames. On his left side was former 30-goal scorer David Booth. Rostislav Olesz, who scored 14 last year, was on his right.
“It's a solid line with two good, hard-working wingers. I think we're going to compliment one another,'' said Matthias. “We're all big guys who like to play with speed, go to the net, go into the corners. I want to take advantage of this. They've both played real well, so it should be a fun night. If I get the puck on their stick, they're going to do something with it.''
The opportunity to do create something hasn't been lost on Matthias who spent much of his rookie season in the minors. Last year, Matthias started the year in the minors but was called up and found a niche on the third and fourth lines. He scored seven goals and a strong training camp helped him secure a spot on the opening night roster.
Coach Pete DeBoer says he has faith in Matthias' abilities, only he needs to see a more consistent effort on a nightly basis. As is the case with young players, Matthias can disappear for entire games. At other times, like in Monday's loss to Vancouver, he can be hard to miss.
“He has a history, at least with the two years I've been with him, of bringing a great game to the rink one or two nights, then taking his foot off the gas,'' said DeBoer. “He needs to bring desperation every night. That created by where he plays in the lineup. If he's going, he's capable of being a second, third line centerman. If he's physical and using his strength. If he doesn't, he's a fourth line guy or a scratch.''
On Monday, Matthias had a strong game, driving the slot and putting pressure on goalie Roberto Luongo. Matthias had a chance to give the Panthers a lead with seven minutes remaining after Luongo left the net open for just a moment after making a diving save. Matthias crashed hard on the loose puck and tried to shovel it in, but Luongo recovered just in time and made the block.
A few minutes later, Daniel Sedin scored in a pileup near the net and helped the Canucks escape with a 2-1 victory.
“We're playing strong for 60 minutes and good things are about to happen,'' said Matthias. “This is a team that can get hot, be good for a long stretch of time.''
Finding a home with the Panthers hasn't been easy for Matthias. After his strong four-game debut as a rookie player, fans and media weren't the only ones who penciled Matthias into the Panthers lineup as a rookie in 2008.
Matthias came into camp not really expecting how hard he would have to work to make it. When the Panthers decided his poor first camp meant a trip to the minors, Matthias went to Rochester, N.Y., and admittedly sulked and pouted. Even when he got called up to the Panthers, he wasn't very assertive and ended up skipping between the two teams.
That all changed for Matthias in 2009 as he changed his attitude and came into camp in good shape. He lost a numbers battle for a roster slot, but went to Rochester with a determined effort. When he came back up to the Panthers, he was a different player than before. Today, Matthias appears to be more mature and much more assertive. Matthias fits in more than he has in the past and seems much more comfortable in his surroundings both on and off the ice.
“It's like night and day. He's much more assertive than he was when he first came up,'' said Olesz. “He's so strong on the face-offs now, that's great for a center. He's played well, can skate with anyone. That's helped with his confidence. I think he's getting much more confidence in his game and that leads to control during a game.''