The Panthers circled the first four games coming out of the All-Star break as extremely important to their challenge of trying to end an NHL-record 11 year postseason drought.
So far, things couldn't have worked out better.
Florida won its second straight game against a divisional rival on Friday, beating Winnipeg 2-1 at BankAtlantic Center as Kris Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim scored with Scott Clemmensen continuing his hot streak with 20 saves.
The Panthers continue their run through the Southeast Division Saturday in Tampa as Clemmensen returns to the net.
Florida is now 9-2-3 within the division and hold a three-point lead on Washington. The Jets dropped back to five points back of the Panthers as they are now 0-9 in the second game of a back-to-back set. Winnipeg beat the Lightning in overtime on Thursday.
Winnipeg has been outscored 35-6 in those nine games.
“This is what we need,'' said Versteeg, who now has six goals in Florida's past three games (all wins) against the former Atlanta Thrashers. “You look at the standings every day and see where you are, where other teams are. Obviously you want to play in these kind of games because of the severity of the points. We know what is at stake every game. We need to put a long winning streak together.''
Versteeg, who returned Friday after missing Wednesday's win over the Capitals after a bout with the flu, got the Panthers going with a power play goal with 4:14 left in the first. Versteeg, who recorded his first career hat trick in Winnipeg on Nov. 10, one-timed a Mikael Samuelsson pass from the right circle to beat backup Chris Mason.
The Jets got on the board midway through the second on a goal from Bryan Little, only the Panthers matched that and retook the lead three minutes later when Bergenheim snapped a pass from Marcel Goc over Mason's glove.
Clemmensen, who hasn't made starts on consecutive nights since his days in New Jersey, stopped all seven shots faced in the third period as he improved to 8-2-5. Since starter Jose Theodore tweaked his knee Dec. 31, Clemmensen has gone 5-1-3.
“I don't have to do too much right now, I'm just trying to keep the rhythm going,'' said Clemmensen, who will become the first Florida goalie to start in consecutive nights this season.
“These divisional games against teams we're in the mix with are big. They are the end-all, be-all, but they are big games for us. For me, if I just play solid, I think this team in front of me will win. I don't have to do anything special with this group.''
TWO BACK ON DL
The Panthers placed forwards Jack Skille and Marco Sturm back on the injured list Friday not long after the two returned to the lineup after long absences.
Sturm missed 14 games after suffering a concussion but played Wednesday against the Capitals.
Sturm is thought to have a groin injury and coach Kevin Dineen said he'll be evaluated next week.
Skille missed 13 games with a shoulder injury but played in back-to-back games Jan. 20-21. He was put on the injured list retroactive to Jan. 22.
“I think I may have rushed it,'' Skille said, adding he is aiming to return at the end of next week. “I'm going to do this smart and take my time, get it as healthy as I can. Once the trainers say I'm good, I'll be back.''
() Versteeg said he missed out on enjoying the bulk of his All-Star break as he and his younger brother caught some kind of nasty bug last weekend.
Versteeg said he was basically bed-ridden from Saturday through Wednesday. He spent the weekend watching the All-Star festivities and caught Wednesday's game against the Capitals via his television.
“It really hit me on Saturday. So I didn't get to do much during the weekend except stay in a bed,'' said Versteeg, who returned to practice Thursday. “It was tough to not play in a game of that magnitude. Now it's time to get back and help the team win again.
"It's way more nerve-wracking watching a game from the house. You are praying every time they shoot. I don't get nervous playing, but when it's out of your hands, it's tough.''
Versteeg's goal was the 20th this season. Versteeg has scored at least 20 goals in four straight seasons although this is by far the quickest (48 games). His career high of 22 goals came in 78 games with the Blackhawks in 2008-09.