SUNRISE, Fla. -- Panthers forward Kris Versteeg said he felt "terrible" in his return to action after missing a game due to the flu. The Winnipeg Jets, meanwhile, are just sick of seeing him.
The Jet-killer scored for the sixth time in his last three games against Winnipeg as Florida extended its Southeast Division lead with a 2-1 victory Friday night.
"I don't know, they're a good team," Versteeg said when asked about why he's been torturing the Jets this season. "Sometimes you shoot and it goes in. Sometimes as you've seen with me, it won't. I don't really care about who I'm scoring against as long as it goes in."
Sean Bergenheim also scored for the Panthers, who now have a three-point lead in the Southeast over Washington (59-56) and a five-point lead over third-place Winnipeg. The Panthers have beaten both teams this week to start a four-game stretch of Southeast Division games. Florida plays at Tampa Bay Saturday night and visits Washington on Tuesday.
"That's what we need," Versteeg said. "You keep looking at the standings, which I do, every day you want to see where you are, you want to see where other teams are and obviously you want to play in these type of games because of the severity of the points. We know what's at stake every game and we've got to start putting a long winning streak together instead of winning one and losing one here. We're going to have to be consistent in our winning ways going down the stretch."
Bergenheim broke a 1-1 tie at 14:27 of the second period when he outmuscled Bryan Little to redirect Marcel Goc's pass from behind the net. Goalie Chris Mason got a piece of the shot, but the puck slid over the goal line before the goalie could retrieve it. The game-winner was Bergenheim's first goal since Dec. 18 — his last game before he was sidelined for a month with a lower-body injury.
Scott Clemmensen, starting for the seventh time in nine games with Jose Theodore still sidelined with a knee injury, stopped 20 shots and improved to 5-1-3 in his last nine games. He has a 2.13 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage in those nine games.
"It's never going to be easy in this league, especially against these teams that are fighting for the division win, like the Jets here tonight," Clemmensen said. "We're not going to come out here and blow anyone away, but it's nice when it does happen. A win is a win."
Little scored for the Jets, whose struggles on the back end when they play on consecutive nights continued. Winnipeg is now 0-9-0 this season in the second half of back-to-backs and has been outscored 36-7 in those games.
"If you're gonna be a good team, you have to learn to win these games," Little said. "We can't use that as an excuse. Every team in the League has to play back-to-back games."
A bigger issue than back-to-back games for the Jets these days is their lack of scoring. Friday's game was the fifth in a row where they failed to score more than one goal in regulation.
Said Jets coach Claude Noel: "Do I like the one goal we get every game? No. Would I Iike to see it change? Yes. Do I coach that way? No. That's what we have, but there's still a way to win the games.
"We don't have (Sidney) Crosby or (Evgeni) Malkin. We've got what we've got."
Mason, getting the start after Ondrej Pavelec played in Thursday's 2-1 OT win at Tampa Bay, made 28 saves.
The victory gave Florida a 3-1 lead in the season series. The road team had won the first three meetings.
The Panthers entered the game having lost their last five Friday night games, all in regulation. Winnipeg dropped to 0-18-3 when trailing after two periods.
Versteeg, who missed Wednesday's 4-2 victory over Washington because of his illness, opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 15:46 of the first period. With Alexander Burmistrov in the box for slashing, Versteeg beat Mason with a one-timer from the off wing that went through Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey and Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky standing in front of the net.
"It's been a rough little go over the last few days," Versteeg said. "Hopefully over the next little while I start to feel better, but a win always makes you feel pretty good."
More games against the Jets would help. The teams meet again March 1 at Winnipeg and April 3 at the BankAtlantic Center.
Versteeg had his first career hat trick in the Panthers' 5-2 victory at Winnipeg on Nov. 10 and two more goals against the Jets in Florida's 4-3 shootout victory on Jan. 21.
The Panthers had plenty of other chances Friday night to add to their lead in the first period but failed to convert on three 2-on-1 rushes.
"Our team right now can't give up 20 minutes of free freakin' play and expect you're gonna be able to win the game," Noel said.
The Jets still managed to tie the game when Little scored at 11:29 of the second period, 30 seconds after Winnipeg's Chris Thorburn fought the Panthers' Krys Barch. Andrew Ladd stole the puck from Versteeg along the boards in the Florida zone and fed Little, who spun around and beat Clemmensen through the five-hole with a wrist shot from the left faceoff dot.
The Panthers shut the door after that, which made Coach Kevin Dineen forget about his own cold.
"It's amazing, you move to Florida, you figure all this warm weather, I've gotten more colds in the last six months than I've ever had," said Dineen, who didn't address the media after Friday's morning skate because he was nursing a sore throat. "But I tell you, a game like tonight makes you feel a lot better.
"There was a lot of battle out there by our players. I was very proud of them."
1 - 0 FLA
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 FLA
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