The Day After: Versteeg Helps Propel Panthers Into First Place


Go ahead and look. No, really, go look. I’ll wait. Go check out the standings and see it with your own eyes: the Florida Panthers are in first place in the Southeast Division!

Thursday, the Panthers visited Winnipeg to play the Jets for the first time since Bill Clinton occupied The Oval Office and walked out with a 5-2 win and first place in their back pockets. And even though we’re not even to the quarter pole of the NHL regular season, it’s still something very few expected would happen on October 11th, let alone November 11th.

Kris Versteeg was the hero of the day as he recorded his first career hat-trick and Jason Garrison blasted his sixth goal of the year (to move him into a tie with Nicklas Lidstrom for most goals by a defenseman) to lead the way for the Cats.

The Jets came out of the gates strong to start this one, much like they did on 10/31, the last time these two teams met, and peppered Jose Theodore with a few early shots (and they wouldn’t record another official shot until midway through the second period) but he was equally up to the task. A kill of an early Keaton Ellerby penalty led to the Panthers taking over control of the game for the next period and a half. Versteeg got them on the board as he buried a a ricochet off the shin pad of Jets d-man Zach Bogosian past Ondrej Pavelec. Ten minutes later, Versteeg would double the lead as he outworked two Jets penalty killers to bang home a rebound of his own shot past the unmoving netminder.

In the second period, the Panthers doubled their lead. Garrison released a howitzer from the point on a nice cross-ice pass from Versteeg. And with just under two minutes left in the period, Mike Santorelli scored his second goal in three games when he wristed one past Pavelec while surrounded by three Jets.

To their credit, the Jets applied major pressure to the Panthers throughout the third period and made this game more interesting than most Cats fans would’ve liked it. Tim Stapleton ended any hope of a Theodore shut out bid when he won a scrum in front of the net on the power play to make it 4-1 with 17:32 to play. Three minutes later, things got even more interesting when Andrew Ladd redirected a Bogosian point shot past Theodore, giving the Jets life they hadn’t had since the opening minutes. The Jets pounded the Florida net over the rest of the period but Theodore and the defense wouldn’t allow the score to get any closer. Versteeg put the baby to bed with his third goal at 18:31, this one a sprawling effort from his knees.

In addition to the nights had by Versteeg and Garrison, Brian Campbell had an impressive night of his own. His three assists moved him into a tie for most assists in the league with three other players with 14 (the other three are forwards).

The two points with the win moves the Panthers past the Washington Capitals (who have two games in hand, it should be noted) into first place in the Southeast Division, third overall in the Eastern Conference. And, yes, everyone is aware that there is still 67 games left to play, but it’s refreshing to see a Panthers team playing from on top of the standings instead of digging a giant crater for them to crawl out of, like has been the way for the past few seasons. The great football coach Vince Lombardi was once quoted as saying “Winning is a habit. And unfortunately, so is losing.” We’ve seen much of the latter for too many years, for a myriad of reasons but, it looks like this Dale Tallon built-Kevin Dineen coached version of the Florida Panthers is far more interested in the former. Just check the standings.

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