WINNIPEG -- The Florida Panthers are making a habit of getting fans to boo the home team.
There were plenty of boos at the MTS Centre on Thursday night, but they weren't directed at the Panthers. Florida came into Winnipeg and whipped the home team 5-2, spoiling the Jets' return home after a seven-game road trip.
An ornery sellout crowd of 15,004 booed the Jets off the ice after the second period with the Panthers leading 4-0. Two nights earlier in Toronto, Florida earned the Leafs plenty of boos from the home crowed in handing the hosts a 5-1 defeat.
"That's part of our game plan, is being a hard team to play against," said Versteeg, who added that he had not scored a hat trick since his days in the Western Hockey League. "[Tonight] was another learning experience for a new team, and we're fortunate to get that win and do it playing our hockey."
Theodore made his fifth start in six games as the Panthers improved to 8-4-3, including 3-0-3 in their last six. Brian Campbell had three assists, and Jason Garrison and Mike Santorelli had the other goals for a Florida club that converted three of six power-play chances.
"You need to get the points, especially early on," Theodore said. "The standings are going to get really tight. We saw in previous seasons how tight it gets toward the end, so these points are huge."
After taking a 4-0 lead through two periods, the Panthers expected Winnipeg to produce a strong third period, and the hosts did just that. But after a scrambly first few minutes that saw the Jets score two quick goals, the Panthers shut down the Winnipeg attack.
In building their 4-0 lead, the Panthers knocked out Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec after two periods and spoiled his return to home ice after a stout performance on the team's road trip. Pavelec produced three wins, one of them a shutout, and a .910 save percentage during the 13-day journey.
"The first 40 minutes, we just weren't skating," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "We were sitting around watching. They are a fast team, they like to play an up-tempo game. We just stood around and watched them." Peter Mannino, recalled from the AHL month after Chris Mason suffered a groin injury in a 9-8 loss at Philadelphia on Oct. 27, replaced Pavelec to start the third period. Mannino made his first NHL appearance since he relieved Pavelec on Jan. 23 during a 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pavelec has been pulled in three of his 14 games this season and for the second consecutive time at home.
"He was no worse than anybody else," Jets coach Claude Noel said of Pavelec.
"As far as the game goes," Noel said, "I didn't enjoy the game. We played poor for a good portion of the game. We didn't have very many good players. We were better in the third but we didn't deserve to win the game. We played five minutes in the first period, and we played 20 in the third."
During the road trip through the Eastern Conference, the Jets scored a 4-3 shootout decision in the teams' first meeting 10 days ago in Florida. The win, one of the Jets' finer efforts on the 3-2-2 road trip, featured a 39-save performance by Pavelec. However, the Panthers are off to their best start since the 1996-97 season and they tormented the Jets this time using their dominant first line, fifth-ranked power play and back-end offensive production.
After an opening five minutes of play that saw the Jets notch the game's first four shots, the Panthers took over. Florida scored on its first shot 7:14 into the opening period when Versteeg jammed a bouncing puck past Pavelec and inside the right post for his team-leading sixth goal and first since Oct. 27 at Ottawa.
"[Winnipeg] came out with a ton of energy," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "They came at us hard, we absorbed that. We scored that first goal, the game settled down, and I liked our game from then on."
Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, flanking center Stephen Weiss, have supplied the Panthers with a top line that has recorded 18 of the team's 43 goals so far this season.
"Opportunity presents itself in different ways," Dineen said of Versteeg's fast start this season. "I think that what he has done is that he realizes he is getting a quality opportunity on this team that he may not have seen in Toronto or in Chicago when he was with all of those incredible offensive players that those teams have. It hasn't just been one game. He's been really consistent and a good player for us all year."
The Fleischmann-Weiss-Versteeg line made it 2-0 at 17:27 after a check-to-the-head penalty to Winnipeg's Nik Antropov for an offensive-zone hit on Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov gave Florida a power play. Versteeg snuck loose in the slot after putting a shot on Pavelec and backhanded the rebound into the net.
Florida did not even need a true power play to break open the game early in the second period. Kendal McArdle clipped Fleischmann with a high-stick, allowing Florida to cycle the puck for just over 25 seconds during the delayed penalty before Jason Garrison's right-point shot tore through a crowd in front of Pavelec at 4:53, giving the Panthers three goals on just eight shots.
Winnipeg shooters did not register a second-period shot until 9:53 when Jim Slater's shot ended a 23:26 drought for the Jets.
The fans grew increasingly irritable late in the second period after an unnecessary slashing penalty to Dustin Byfuglien for jabbing at Theodore's glove to try to jar loose the puck. Mike Santorelli fired home a rebound at 18:04 for his second of the season. Kulikov's assist extended his points streak to a career-high five games.
After the goaltending change, Winnipeg rallied early in the third period. Stapleton collected his first goal of the season when he poked a loose puck past Theodore at 2:28, and Ladd ended a six-game goal drought at 5:40 to make it a two-goal game.
Winnipeg managed 17 third-period shots, but the rally ended when Versteeg hit the empty net with 1:19 remaining.
Noel, upset by his team's performance, cut short his post-game press conference.
"It was poor," Noel said of his team's play, "and it was all because of a lack of intensity. It was that simple. That controls their decisions, and their decisions were poor. If you watch the first two periods, our decisions were poor. Turnovers, not physical. Thank you."
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