BY DAVID LARKINS
Special to On Frozen Pond/The Miami Herald
WINNIPEG, Man. — Not even sure that menace to the Winnipeg Jets, Kris Versteeg, could have helped the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.
The Jets struck for quick goals in the first period and added four more in the third to hammer the Panthers 7-0 Thursday night at a sold-out MTS Centre.
The Jets (31-27-8) scored twice in the first 6:03 of the first period and moved to within two points of the Southeast Division-leading Panthers (30-21-12), who had their three-game win streak snapped in front of a capacity crowd of 15,004.
Versteeg, who sat out his second straight game with what the team is calling a lower-body injury, has six goals and eight points in three games against the Jets this season and locals were quite content to hear he was scratched from the lineup Thursday.
Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen, however, was particularly displeased with his team’s play in its own zone.
“We had turnovers and they ended up in our net,” Dineen said. “You can’t play that kinda hockey in October and you certainly can’t do it in March. It’s a man’s game this time of year and we did not look prepared.”
With Versteeg out of the way, the Jets went to work early.
Evander Kane took advantage of a Keaton Ellerby turnover in the Panthers’ zone 4:01 into the first period. Ellerby’s clearing attempt went right to the stick of the Jets’ leading goal-scorer who took the puck on the edge of the faceoff circle, deked left on Florida goalie Jose Theodore and slipped the puck under his right arm to put Winnipeg up 1-0 with his 25th goal of the season.
A little more than two minutes later, Theodore surrendered a big rebound on a Mark Stuart point shot with the puck sliding right to Winnipeg’s Jim Slater who potted his ninth of the season into an open net from the right faceoff circle.
For all the good the Panthers accomplished on their three-game surge, none of it was evident in Winnipeg.
“There’s lots of different things,” Dineen said. “Our power play was more productive, our game had more force to it and tonight we did not (have that). I think we understood they were going to come hard. They’re a desperate hockey team, they’re not in the playoffs and were going to push hard and I don’t think we responded well to that pressure.”
The Panthers’ best chance came in the first period. Tomas Fleischmann created a turnover at the Winnipeg blueline and broke in on Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. Aiming for Pavelec’s glove corner, Fleischmann’s shot was redirected by Pavelec’s shoulder up to the crossbar before ricocheting into the corner.
The Jets started the third period in the same manner they began the first, scoring two goals in the first five minutes of the frame and four in the first nine.
Stuart blasted a slap shot that was redirected by Kyle Wellwood in front of a screened Theodore to make it 3-0 1:49 into the period.
The Jets added to their lead on a massive Florida breakdown that allowed the Jets to break out 5-on-1 on Theodore. Brian Little converted a cross-ice pass from Blake Wheeler against a helpless Theodore to make it 4-0, eliciting a standing ovation from the MTS Centre crowd and putting an end to Theodore’s night.
Theodore stopped 20 shots before being pulled in favour of Scott Clemmensen less than four minutes into the third.
The move had little effect, however, as the Jets immediately gave Clemmensen the same treatment his predecessor got. With Ed Jovanovski off for slashing, Nik Antropov slapped aggressively at a loose puck in front of Clemmensen and muscled it through his legs at the 8:06 mark.
As the public address announcer was announcing that goal, the Jets struck again, creating a turnover near centre ice that allowed Wellwood and Kane to skate in on a 2-on-1. Wellwood slid the puck over to Kane, who made a move to his right and fooled Clemmensen to make it 6-0 and give Winnipeg its highest scoring output in a game since a 6-4 win over Florida on Nov. 19, 2011. It was the largest margin of victory for the Jets so far this season.
“We weren’t ready obviously,” defenceman Brian Campbell said. “We take a turnover and a penalty in the first shift pretty much sums up how the rest of the game’s gonna go. We thought we had some fight back when it was 2-0 and had some chances going into the third but getting down 2-0 early and making mistakes — you’re not going to come back and win too many games that way.”
Pavelec made 33 saves for his fourth shutout of the season.
The Jets outshot Florida 13-7 in that first period, but the Panthers responded in the second by putting up 17 shots to Winnipeg’s eight.
The Panthers return home for back-to-back games at BankAtlantic Center Saturday against the Nashville Predators and Sunday against the Ottawa Senators, who sit three points back of Boston for first place in the Northeast Division.
“They keep coming, the games,” Campbell said. “That’s a big part of playing in this league, you’ve gotta let them go and move on. We got beat pretty bad tonight. They wanted it more than us tonight. “
The Jets moved into eighth place, by a point, in the Eastern Conference, vaulting over idle Washington, which has three games in hand.