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NICE SURPRISE: Jesse Winchester Making Most of Chance with Panthers

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

After spending last season out of the NHL, Jesse Winchester came into Panthers training camp determined to do anything to stick around. Winchester even joked he would play any position, well, anything but goalie.

Not only did Winchester's play catch the eye of coaches during camp, but he's been one of the nice surprises so far this season. Winchester scored his second goal of the year Friday against Buffalo and got his second assist Sunday against the Lightning.

Last week, coach Kevin Dineen told Winchester to go ahead and pack up his temporary home and find more permanent living arrangements.

"I had one of the great joys in coaching when I told him to go ahead and get a place here in town, get out of the hotel he'd been living in,'' Dineen said. "He's a kid who has been hungry since Day 1. He developed a trust level that he can be a dependable player and offer a dynamic we had been missing. He can kill penalties, is responsible defensively and is physical. He's done what has been asked. He's been a great addition.''

Most didn't give Winchester much of a chance of sticking around in South Florida this long. Winchester spent four seasons in Ottawa after graduating from Colgate although his 2011-12 season cut short because of concussion issues.

The Sens passed on giving Winchester a contract in 2013 and he couldn't find work in the league. Winchester spent the lockout playing for a second-tier team in Finland before coming home hoping for an NHL job offer that never materialized. Winchester finished the season playing for Jokerit in Helsinki.

On Sunday, Winchester's line started against the Lightning, his 12th NHL game this season.

"I've been around so I wasn't nervous coming in here, I just wanted to put my best foot forward," Winchester said. "The guys here have welcomed me and the coaches and management have given me a chance to play. I'm just trying to run with it every day and do what I do.''

Although Winchester was helped along by Steve Pinizzotto's hip injury during training camp, he's earned his keep with the Panthers by being hard-nosed with the puck as well as being one of the team's most dependable penalty killers.

When Winchester said he would play anywhere the Panthers asked, he wasn't kidding.

"I've been playing hard I guess, but it's tough when you aren't winning games,'' Winchester said. "We compete and want to win. We're competitive people. I like to chip in when I can. I want to play the right way, be hard to play against. That's my role and I hope to do it every night.''

Dineen has made it clear he doesn't want players who only want to be playing in the NHL. He wants players who want to win in the NHL and are willing to make a difference in making that a reality with the Panthers.

Winchester is filling that order.

"I don't want guys who want to be NHL players on a bad team. We had that last year,'' Dineen said. "We want players who are bringing something to the table. Jesse Winchester may have been our best forward in the past couple of games. .-.-. If you watch the games, you see guys who play with Jesse seem to have a little extra spurt. He's had a fine start to his year.''

-- Dineen called a timeout soon after Steven Stamkos scored Tampa Bay's second goal within the first three shots on Sunday. He blamed that quick goal on Florida players coming off the ice as the likes of Stamkos, Ryan Malone and Martin St. Louis charged toward the net.

"There was some real correctable hockey on the second goal,'' Dineen said. "We had two change when we have skill guys coming up the ice. Shame on us. Those are areas we have to address and talk about. We're not pointing fingers because we're all in this together. But those are correctable mistakes.''

-- Dineen said Tomas Fleischmann was the latest player to be hit by the flu with Scottie Upshall and Ryan Whitney also being affected. Dineen said players were offered flu shots at the arena following Sunday's game.

"It's that time of year,'' Dineen said. "I would rather have guys hungry and healthy than talented and sick.''

Winchester photo courtesy of AL DIAZ/Associated Press