The Panthers, fresh off a 5-1 drubbing of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, came into Winnipeg looking to avenge the shootout loss the Jets handed them recently in Sunrise. Head coach Kevin Dineen has been stressing a full 60-minute effort from the team each game to ensure the Panthers aren't leaving points on the table. Well, that wasn't too much of a concern in this game, as Florida dominated most of the gameplay on route to a strong 5-2 victory. New Panther Kris Versteeg, already having a very productive time on the Panthers' top line, scored the first hat trick in his NHL career and led the Panthers with four points on the night. And yet again, netminder Jose Theodore helped give Florida a chance to win even when they weren't doing as Dineen preached.
The Panthers started this game much like they started the second period of the previous game against Toronto: slow, unable to clear the zone, and unwilling to win battles. The Jets came out and absolutely dominated the first five minutes of the game, blasting Theodore with shots and continuing to pressure the Cats. Florida took an inevitable penalty with Keaton Ellerby going to the box for holding, giving the Jets a powerplay, but Florida weathered the storm by killing the penalty. Shortly after, Florida capitalizes on a rush, with Versteeg scoring his sixth goal of the young season. Florida once again needs to give Theodore some hugs; if it weren't for his early play, the Cats would have been down one or two early and the Versteeg goal wouldn't have jumpstarted the team as much. However, after the goal the Panthers did seem to wake up, with the top line generating some solid pressure and the rest of the lines starting to forecheck and cause some turnovers. The teams went back and forth for the majority of the rest of the period, until Nik Antropov took a penalty, giving Florida its first power play. They didn't waste the opportunity, with the top unit moving the puck very well until Versteeg scored his second of the game after getting his own rebound. The Jets weren't able to respond with a goal, and the Panthers went into the first intermission with a two-goal lead.
Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel must've said something during the break to his team, because they came out and had two strong shifts to begin the period. Theodore and the Panthers again held the fort and started to respond with some chances of their own. About five minutes into the period the Panthers drew a call thanks to a fantastic individual effort by Tomas Fleischmann, and during the delayed call the Cats got the extra man out. They managed to keep possession of the puck and were rewarded, as Jason Garrison loaded up his now-trademarked bomb of a slapshot and scored his sixth of the season, giving the Cats a 3-0 lead. Not long after, Florida drew yet another call, but was unable to convert on their third powerplay opportunity. Florida continued to control the pace of the game, keeping the Jets mostly to the outside, and kept the scoring chances against almost non-existant. The Cats got yet another powerplay opportunity when Dustin Byfuglien was called for slashing after giving Theodore an extra poke after he covered the puck. Yet again the Panthers would not be denied as Mike Santorelli fired a rebound wrister top-shelf. The Panthers finished the period off with a 4-0 lead and were in command of their fate.
The Jets started the third period with a new goalie in Peter Mannino, which didn't seem like a good omen for Winnipeg. Still, the Jets started applying some decent pressure on the Panthers, and managed to draw a penalty. The Jets finally got on the board early in the third, scoring on the man advantage after a scramble in front. Florida could have prevented the goal but the defenseman weren't able to manage the traffic in front of Theodore, especially with Byfuglien camped out in front. The Jets kept the ice tilted in their favor as Florida looked to play to preserve the lead, which tends to backfire against Florida, and at around six minutes in the Jets scored their second, a deflection from Andrew Ladd off a Zach Bogosian point shot. After that goal, the Cats seemed to wake back up for a bit, getting some decent rushes and pressure on Mannino and the Jets, but weren't able to convert. Winnipeg took another penalty with around eight minutes left in the third, with Byfuglien taking a second slashing penalty. The Cats weren't able to score, and then gave up a powerplay opportunity of their own, as Mike Weaver was called for high-sticking on Evander Kane. The Cats managed to kill it off, and stymied any attempts at late pressure by the Jets. Winnipeg pulled the goalie for the extra attacker but the Panthers won the faceoff and pushed it up to Versteeg after a save by Theodore, giving him an opportunity for the empty-netter. It looked like Versteeg might miss as he was hooked down by Byfuglien, but he managed to chip the puck with a falling backhand swipe to get the hat trick. The Cats closed out the game with authority and walked away with a 5-2 win.
- The Panthers sure did start slow, but they also really made up for it after the first five minutes of the game. There were times in the period where Florida toyed with Winnipeg in the offensive zone, and put Pavelec to the test quite a few times.
- How good is Marcel Goc at stealing the puck? I swear every game he swipes at least two or three by lifting sticks or using his body to position himself to steal it away. He does so many little things in a game, including winning faceoffs. Everyone looks at guys like Versteeg and Fleischmann who put up the points, but it's guys like Goc who help turn a team from good to great. Kudos to Marcel; keep it up, sir.
- The Panthers scored a lot of goals again, but more importantly, they went for a stretch of over 23 minutes (!) without leaving up a shot to the Jets. For very long stretches of the game, Florida simply dominated and controlled the pace of play with a very solid puck possession game. I said in the last recap that the Panthers needed to get the shots against down, and boy did they ever listen. Maybe I'm in the wrong profession.
- The Cats powerplay continues to click. Even on the opportunities where the Panthers didn't score, the puck possession is fantastic and is a stark contrast to last season. Anyone who thought it might be related to personnel, you're probably right, but there's no question Craig Ramsay's fingerprints are all over this masterpiece.
- Scottie Upshall left in the first period with a lower body injury and didn't return. He was hit hard near the Panthers bench and looked shaken up. Hopefully he'll be alright; I'm sure we'll find out more tomorrow.
- The Panthers defense has learned a very important and useful skill that last year's squad didn't seem to have: getting the puck through from up high. Whether they hit the net or not, they're getting the puck through and not turning it over at the blue line or the high slot. This massively helps the team in the puck possession department, and pretty much every D-man for the Cats looks very patient this year.
- Versteeg had probably his best game of the season, getting involved in the defensive end as well as posting a hatty on the scoresheet. He also had the primary assist on the Garrison goal. Congrats to Kris for the first hat trick of his NHL career. Here's to hoping you have many more in a Panther sweater.
- Items of note: Campbell had three assists, Fleischmann had two assists, Kulikov had one assists. Versteeg sits with 17 points on the season, good enough to be in the top 20 in the NHL. Campbell is second in the NHL in assists, and Kulikov is not far behind. Garrison is tied for the NHL lead in goal scored by a defenseman, with none other than Red Wings legend Nicklas Lidstrom. That's some good company, eh Gary?