There were a couple ways you could tell Saturday night that Matt Kiersted was jumping into his NHL debut just three days after signing his first pro contract and two days after arriving in South Florida.
For starters, Kiersted wore his UND hockey shirt underneath his jersey while he played his first NHL game with the Florida Panthers. Also, the Panthers didn't have time to make Kiersted a name plate for his locker room stall. Instead, someone printed out a childhood picture of Kiersted wearing a Panthers jersey and taped it there.
On the ice, however, Kiersted fit right in.
The UND senior, wearing No. 8, played 12 minutes, 47 seconds in Florida's 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.
Kiersted didn't have any points, but led the Panthers with four blocked shots (he led UND and finished second in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with 52 blocked shots this season).
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville praised Kiersted after the game.
"Looked really comfortable," said Quenneville, who led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups. "Looked poised. Did a lot of good things. I like the way he sees and processes the game, positionally aware, had a good stick. . . you know, so I think it was a really good game for him to start."
Kiersted didn't know he was going to play until Saturday morning.
"They told me (Friday) to prepare as if I was going to play," Kiersted said. "So, I was trying to do that, but I really didn't think I was going to be in tonight. I came in to do the testing and the rest of my physical stuff and they told me before morning skate. I got the jitters right away and called my parents when I left. I was excited. It's been a pretty crazy day but an exciting day."
Kiersted became the 105th former UND player to play in the NHL. He also became the first 2020-21 college hockey player to play in an NHL game.
The 6-foot, 186-pound defender from Elk River, Minn., had a terrific college career, posting 20 goals and 77 points in 127 career games. As a senior, he had 22 points in 29 games. He was named a first-team all-NCHC pick and was the runner-up for the league's defensive defenseman of the year award.
Kiersted led UND to the NCHC regular-season and postseason titles. UND was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the regional final last Saturday in Fargo's Scheels Arena. Kiersted, an undrafted free agent, signed his NHL deal Wednesday, choosing the Panthers over more than 20 other teams that pursued him.
Kiersted said it was an adjustment to the NHL, but his ice time increased as he became more comfortable. He played 3:03 in the first period, 4:08 in the second and 5:36 in the third.
"It's the National Hockey League, it's obviously a jump from college," Kiersted said. "Just the faster play is what stood out to me. Things happen quicker. So, I think that's the main thing that stuck out for me."
Kiersted said his family members were able to attend the game. They watched from a suite.
"They came down yesterday," Kiersted said. "I had a big group. I was fortunate to have a lot of people come down.
"The phone calls I've gotten from everyone the past couple days is pretty special. I think my parents might have been more excited than I was. They were fired up. We're all happy we're here. It's a great fit and we all love it here."
.@FlaPanthers having some fun with rookie Matt Kiersted. He signed from North Dakota on Thursday and apparently doesn’t have a nameplate yet. So, someone printed out the picture he tweeted of himself as a toddler in a Panthers sweater. It should stay. pic.twitter.com/wIiKsSnF9W— George Richards (@GeorgeRichards) April 4, 2021