WINNIPEG – Kris Versteeg could hardly remember his last hat trick.
“Probably back in bantam,” said the Florida Panthers right winger, before correcting himself. “Or back in junior, sorry. It’s been a long time.”
Regardless, Versteeg’s first three-goal night in the NHL—along with an assist—lifted the Panthers to a 5-2 victory Thursday over the Winnipeg Jets.
“It was a lot of great work by the guys,” said Versteeg, who now has eight goals in Florida’s impressive 8-4-3 start to the season. “The linemates get you the puck in areas to score, and I was just a fortunate recipient today.”
Jason Garrison and Mike Santorelli also scored to help Florida build a 4-0 lead after two periods. Brian Campbell added three assists as the Panthers won their second consecutive game and have now earned points in six straight contests.
Tim Stapleton and Andrew Ladd replied for the Jets (5-8-3), who were sluggish and unable to mount any sort of attack in the first two periods. Coming off a season-long seven-game road trip, Winnipeg went more than 23 minutes without a shot on goal during one span, and had only 10 shots through 40 minutes.
“I didn’t enjoy the game,” said an irritable Jets coach Claude Noel. “We played poor for a good portion of the game. A lot of it was lack of intensity. We didn’t have very many good players.”
A sedate sell-out crowd of 15,004 at the usually raucous MTS Centre finally found some hope as the Jets cut the Florida lead in half six minutes into the third period. Stapleton scored a power-play goal and Ladd tipped in a Zach Bogosian blast from the point to cut the Panthers’ lead to 4-2.
“We were standing around watching,” said Ladd. “We didn’t play the way we need to play in the first 40 minutes. The last 20 was more like the way we need to play.”
The Jets peppered Florida goalie Jose Theodore with 17 shots in the period, but couldn’t draw any closer. Theodore finished with 25 saves.
Campbell said the Panthers need to learn how to put teams away once they’ve established a big lead.
“Sometimes it’s tough when you get up 4-0,” said the defenceman. “You want to keep that lead and you want to play safe. You’re on the road and you want to get those two points and get out. For us, playing safe doesn’t seem to be working for our team. It gets us on our heels.”
Noel kept starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec on the bench for the third period after he allowed four goals on 15 shots, replacing him with backup Peter Mannino. Mannino, a callup from the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League, stopped all four shots he faced.
Versteeg opened the scoring with a pair of first-period goals, including one on the first shot Pavelec faced at 7:14. He added a power-play goal at 17:27 and an empty-net goal late in the third for the hat trick.
Garrison blasted a shot past a screened Pavelec to make it 3-0 in the second period after an extended spell of 6-on-5 play on a delayed penalty call.
The Panthers scored their second power-play goal of the night when Santorelli beat Pavelec. The Jets have now given up six power-play goals in their last two games.
Notes: Jets forward Eric Fehr participated in contact drills for the first time this season during the morning skate, but the team still hasn’t said when he’ll return from a shoulder injury. … Florida winger Jack Skille was booed every time he touched the puck, in response to his hit on Oct. 31 that broke the collarbone of Jets defenceman Tobias Enstrom. … Canada Post unveiled three Jets-themed stamps on Thursday to commemorate the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg.