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Jets host Panthers in Southeast showdown

by Pete Jensen

PANTHERS (30-20-12) at JETS (30-27-8)

TV: FS-Florida, TSN-JETS

LAST 10: Florida 6-3-1; Winnipeg 5-3-2

Season Series: Thursday marks the fifth of six regular-season meetings between these divisional foes. The Panthers own a three-game winning streak in the season series after earning a 2-1 home victory against the Jets on Feb. 3. Three of the four games have been decided by one goal.

Big Story: It's another crucial clash in the Southeast Division as the Jets look to salvage the home portion of their season series with the Panthers on Thursday at MTS Centre. The Panthers roll into Manitoba riding a three-game winning streak, as Jose Theodore stopped 28 shots to help Florida hold off the Maple Leafs 5-3 in Toronto on Tuesday. With the win, the Panthers extended their cushion over the Jets in the standings to four points with three games in hand. Winnipeg has had two days off to prepare for Florida after suffering a 5-3 home loss at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers on Monday.

Team Scope:

Panthers: Florida is beginning to create some separation in the Southeast as it tries to earn a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Playing without injured leading scorer Kris Versteeg on Tuesday, the Panthers received a big lift from an unlikely source -- Mike Santorelli scored twice in a game for the first time since Nov. 20, 2010, as Florida scored five times against Leafs' goaltender James Reimer despite being outshot 31-23.

"For him to get those goals - those are big goals," Panthers' coach Kevin Dineen said. "We need production throughout our lineup without [Versteeg] for the next little bit. A couple goals out of [Santorelli] is big for us."

Jets: Winnipeg had its six-game points streak snapped in Monday's loss to the Oilers, marking its third defeat in the first six games of its current eight-game homestand. The loss was especially excruciating for the Jets, considering Edmonton rallied for four third-period goals to win for only the ninth time all season on the road. To make matters worse, the Washington Capitals came from behind a day later to defeat the New York Islanders in overtime, enabling them to leapfrog the Jets into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference for the time being.

The Jets hopes the addition of Grant Clitsome, who is expected to make his Winnipeg debut against the Panthers after being claimed off waivers Monday from the Columbus Blue Jackets, can provide a spark to a team in the midst of a playoff push while bolstering its defensive unit on a long-term basis as well.

"He's a very competitive player, a player that has great character," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "With young defensemen, you know that it takes them time to mature. We're extremely excited about getting Grant into the organization. I think he'll fit in very, very nicely with what we're trying to build in Winnipeg."

Who's Hot: Winnipeg's Evander Kane has reeled off five goals and five assists during his current seven-game point streak. Dustin Byfuglien has at least a point in each of his last seven games, compiling two goals and 11 assists in that span. … Stephen Weiss has three goals and two helpers in his last four contests for the Panthers.

Injury Report: Versteeg (lower-body) is out until at least next week. Matt Bradley (upper-body), Marco Sturm (knee), Scottie Upshall (sports hernia surgery) and Dmitry Kulikov (knee) are also expected to miss Thursday's game. … Defenseman Zach Bogosian (upper body) is questionable for Winnipeg.

Stat Pack: The Panthers have won four in a row away from South Florida; a win in Winnipeg will give them their first five-game road win streak since Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, 2008.

Puck Drop: With Winnipeg only a point behind Washington for the East's eighth spot and within striking distance of the Southeast Division lead, a combination of excitement and pressure is mounting on a nightly basis for the club. These Jets may be new in town, but they already feel a responsibility to reward their fans with a playoff berth as they kick off the month of March.

"There is pressure all year, but I like it," goalie Ondrej Pavelec told the Jets' website. "That's why we play hockey, to play under pressure and to play for the fans. You don't get a choice; you have to handle it. Big players play their best hockey under pressure."

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