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Mar 27, 2012; Montreal, QC, CAN; Florida Panthers center Shawn Matthias (18) skates with the puck against Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the Bell Center. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-US PRESSWIRE

Florida Panther Player Rating: Shawn Matthias

Shawn Matthias made great strides this past season, using his size and physical demeanor to evolve into the player the Panthers knew he was capable of becoming. He magnified his role on squad this year, and at times made the second and third lines more threatening than the top line.

While there is still always room for improvement for the fifth-year center, he put up a career best 24 points with 10 goals and 14 assists (eight points more than both of the preceding two seasons). Scoring-wise, his production in the postseason was a bit more minimal in the seven games against the Devils, during which he only tallied one assist and was a -2 on the ice. Keep in mind that, having spent his entire young career with the Panthers, they were the first seven playoff games he had ever played in. The experience from this year is sure to do him some good down the line, especially considering he was playing alongside a handful of guys who have won the Cup elsewhere.

If you need proof that he made a difference this year, 20 of his 24 points were scored in games that the Panthers ended up winning. He was also a big reason the “Comeback Cats” were so intriguing this year with their late-game rallies; eight of his 10 total goals were scored in the third period. Four of his goals were scored in November, when the Cats jumped to the top of the division and boasted a mid-month 16-8-5 record and a +12 goal differential.

What really impressed me and made him stand out from his previous years in the league is how he used his size to his advantage, constantly out-muscling opponents and winning the little battles on the ice. At 6’4″, the 24-year-old dropped the gloves three times this year, and definitely held his own in each of the three scraps. His face-off percentage of 45.8% could be better, but he dished out 60 hits… and good ones at that.

In one of the most exciting regular season games when the Cats came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Devils (eerily foreshadowing Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs), a Matthias hit left New Jersey blueliner Anton Volchenkov in need of roughly 10 stitches. Many argued that Matthias targeted Volchenkov’s head, but it was ultimately ruled a clean hit and no suspension or fine followed.

Not all of Matthias’ hits left his opposer in need of medical attention, but you’ve got to like the grit and the heart that he brings to the ice night in and night out. From a fan’s perspepctive, it was rewarding to see the only player on the roster other than Stephen Weiss who had been a Panther his entire career finally get to experience postseason play. A player like Matthias, who has shown nothing but a stellar work ethic and a positive attitude even through the tougher years, is not the type to get complacent with a playoff berth that resulted in a first round exit. Cats fans should be excited to see what more is to come of Shawn Matthias.

Season grade: B+ … There’s no reason his goal total couldn’t or shouldn’t double. Matthias could easily be a 20-goal scorer, and with five years under his belt and youth still on his side, all the tools are in place.

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