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Panthers Mike Santorelli Hopes Big Night in T.O. Leads to Big Finish ... Kopecky Doesn't Skate ... Cats in Winnipeg for Key Date with Jets

SantorelliTOBY GEORGE RICHARDS Twitter: @OnFrozenPond

TORONTO – No one had to remind Mike Santorelli of his struggles this season. 

Even though he feels he was creating more offensive chances, he came into Tuesday's game against the Maple Leafs with seven goals in 52 games – a sharp contrast to the 20 goals he scored in last year's breakout season.

With the trade deadline coming, Santorelli naturally assumed he might be a player the Panthers could move in an effort to get more offense. When that deadline came and went and Santorelli remained, it appears some burdens were lifted as well. 

In Tuesday's game in Toronto, the first one following Monday's deadline, Santorelli scored two of Florida's first three goals in leading the Panthers to a 5-3 win over the Maple Leafs. It was Santorelli's first two-goal game since Nov. 20, 2010 – and was first multi-point game of the year. Santorelli's opening goal was his first since Feb. 9. 

“It's been a tough year but the chances have been there. It's frustrating when the puck won't go in, but hey, you have to stick with it,'' Santorelli said after Wednesday's practice at Air Canada Center. “I think everyone thinks about the deadline in the back of your head. You never know what will happen. But we have a great group here and I'm glad we all stuck together. I'm looking forward to the run and doing it here. I love playing here.''

Teammate Jason Garrison – who heard his name mentioned on Canadian coverage of the trade deadline – said that he didn't think Santorelli should have worried about being dealt as much as he may have. Garrison thinks Santorelli is a very talented forward who can create chances and bury them as he did last year. 

More power play time wouldn't hurt, either. Five of Santorelli's 20 goals last year came with the advantage. Ths season, Santorelli has been limited on the power play; he came into Tuesday's game with one power play goal before scoring his second against the Leafs.

“He has had a different and difficult year but he's worked on different parts of his game that maybe he didn't have a chance to work on before,'' Garrison said. “He's a really good player and is more of a complete player now. He has such offensive capability that I was telling him he could score two goals no problem. It's only a matter of time before they start going in.''

Coach Kevin Dineen doesn't buy the notion that Santorelli was stressed out about being traded to the point in which it affected his game. “Hey, he isn't a Maple Leaf, lets not kid ourselves,'' Dineen said, pointing out that if Santorelli wants to know what external pressure really means, he would find it here. 

Dineen and the Panthers have been waiting on Santorelli to break out of his prolonged slump – he missed most of October after suffering a shoulder injury during training camp – and hope he is coming out of it now. With 20 games left and the Panthers in the midst of a playoff run, well, later is better than never. 

“Two goals is helpful to the team and we expect him to score,'' Dineen said. “He needs to work for them, go to those hard places. Nothing comes easy this time of year. He worked extremely hard for those goals and they were well deserved. But we expect those things from him every day.''

() Tomas Kopecky didn't partake in Florida's light practice on Wednesday after missing Tuesday's game with what Dineen described as soreness. Kopecky is questionable for Thursday's game against Winnipeg. 

“He still has some minor issues that are truly day-to-day,'' Dineen said. “If he's good enough to skate [Thursday] he'll play.''

() Not only are the Panthers going for their first four game winning streak since 2008 on Thursday, they are also trying to sweep the road portion of the season series in Winnipeg.

Florida is 2-0 in Winnipeg this season and 3-0-1 against the Jets overall. 

Florida hasn't won all of the road games against the Jets franchise since the Atlanta Thrashers came into the league in 1999. The Panthers lost 19 of 34 in Atlanta before the franchise moved to Winnipeg this past summer.


When, Where: 8:30 p.m.; MTS Center, Winnipeg, Manitoba

TV/Radio: FS Florida/WQAM-560

The series: Jets lead 38-29-5

The game: The Jets desperately need to win Thursday to keep their postseason hopes alive. Winnipeg lost two straight after briefly taking the division lead from the Panthers – including a disappointing home loss to Edmonton on Monday. The Jets trail the Panthers by four points and have played three more games.