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Special Panthers Feature: Kris Versteeg Back on Track? Picks Up Two in Cats Win in Winnipeg

Versteeg2By Adam Wazny, Miami Herald Writer

WINNIPEG — Now that he’s back doing what he does best, how does KrisVersteeg explain his last month of net frustration?

The Florida Panthers right-winger scored two goals in the 4-3 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, putting an end of a scoring funk that stretched over nine games and 25 calendar days.

In that span (from Dec. 30 to Jan. 20), Versteeg took 24 shots in exactly 216 minutes of ice time, but failed to light the red lamp.

“I’ve been kind of brutal as of late,” he said following Saturday’s win, a statement mixed with equal parts truth and relief.

The honesty didn’t stop there, either.

Versteeg, 25, said it’s easy to look back at the nine games and find a moment where the unwanted streak should have stopped. A missed open net here and a blown breakaway chance there — underlined with countless pucks clanged off posts or crossbars — suddenly morphs into a situation where the player starts to press.

And with that extra press comes extra pressure and a small,unproductive molehill turns into a mountain of concern.

“I couldn’t really explain it,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You try to fight through it, but you also pray to the hockey gods for a bounce here of there. It does wear on your confidence — I was shaken — but you have to keep going out and play your game.”

The two goals Saturday gave Versteeg at a team-leading 19 and leaves him just three short of his career-high set with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2008-09 season. Barring another extended lapse in offense this year, Versteeg will set a new scoring standard for himself and in the process, validate general manager Dale Tallon’s belief in his abilities prior to this season.

The Panthers knew he could be an offensive difference maker again — not the misguided mess he was last year with Toronto and Philadelphia, where he could never really get comfortable and eventually found himself regressing into more of a depth guy who could chip in a goal once in a blue moon.

“I’m not saying I’m a top guy, I’m not saying I’m a No. 1 guy, but I always believed I could be a Top-6 forward in this league,” Versteeg added.

What impressed Panthers coach Kevin Dineen was the goal Versteeg potted in the shootout against the Jets Saturday. Winger Mikael Samuelsson eventually scored the winning goal in the seventh round (a hat-tip to goaltender Scott Clemmensen, who made five saves on seven shots), but it was Versteeg’s nifty backhand goal into the top of the net in the second round that caught the coach’s eye.

“He hasn’t great success in the shootout, but he certainly found a little something special," Dineen said. "That was a heck of a goal.”

Versteeg was 0-for-4 in the shootout before his successful attempt against Winnipeg. Overall in his career, the Panthers leading scorer now has five goals in 17 shootout chances.

Thanks to Pittsburgh’s 4-3 overtime win over Washington Sunday, the Panthers (22-15-10, 54 points) remain in first place in the Southeast Division, one point up on the Capitals and four up on Winnipeg.

Florida is back on the ice Tuesday, when the Philadelphia Flyers invade BankAtlantic Center.

It will be the final game for the Panthers before the NHL’s All-Star break, which officially starts Thursday.