SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are looking up.
At this point, it’s the only direction they can go.
The Panthers snapped their five-game losing streak Thursday night, barely hoisting themselves out of the NHL’s basement. It is the first step in a turnaround Florida hopes takes shape as the team starts to return key players from injury.
“We’re still not out of it,” coach Kevin Dineen said following Florida’s 6-3 triumph over the Winnipeg Jets. “Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s only one win.”
Florida returned 20-goal scorer Kris Versteeg and two-way center Marcel Goc over the past two games. Stephen Weiss — Florida’s usual top-line center — and defenseman Erik Gudbranson are expected to rejoin the lineup next week.
The injuries to those key players forced Dineen to not only shuffle the roster to fill the void, but also to strike a perfect balance on each line. For a team like Florida, which does not have a superstar catalyst and relies on a two-way team system, every piece of the puzzle is crucial for success.
“It wasn’t as much who you’re missing, but the players we have,” Dineen said. “We’re a little bit out of position, trying to fit the old square peg in the round hole.”
As the lines struggled to gel during the team’s skid, the work ethic started to deteriorate and the losses began to mount. It was the first time since Feb. 1-11, 2010, the Panthers failed to pick up a point in a five-game span.
Aside from being outscored 23-5 during the five-game losing streak, the Panthers found themselves outshot, outmuscled and simply outworked in each contest.
But Thursday night against Winnipeg, Florida looked more like the squad that captured the Southeast Division title last year, albeit with a little more offense.
The Panthers dominated play through the first 40 minutes of the contest, limiting the Jets to just two shots over a 20-minute stretch in the middle of that time frame. Florida overcame two different one-goal deficits in the final period, then tacked on three more goals en route to its first win since opening night.
Versteeg scored his first goal of the season, and Fleischmann — last year’s team points leader — picked up three assists.
“It clicked,” Fleischmann said. “It was something we didn’t have before. Games like that, tie games, that’s what you need, a little chemistry. I think we had three lines that played pretty well, chemistry-wise, so its a good thing going forward.”
Another spark plug for Florida has been the emergence of rookie Drew Shore. A call-up to fill in for Weiss, Shore has settled in as Florida’s second-line center. The American Hockey League All-Star has yet to earn his first NHL point, but through five games he leads Panthers centers with an impressive 65.9 face-off winning percentage.
That’s been essential for a puck possession team like Florida, and it has opened opportunities for linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller, who have combined for three goals in the past two games.
“It all starts with face-offs,” Mueller said. “You get the puck, you get possession and make good things happen.”
With Shawn Matthias and Jerred Smithson rounding out the middle, it gives Dineen — finally — a wealth of choices to strengthen his two-way gameplan moving forward.
“It gives us more balance and a little more continuity as far as where guys are used to playing and puts people in their positions,” Dineen said.
But still, as of Thursday’s games, the Panthers are tied with the Flyers for the third-worst record in the NHL at 2-5-0. They are four points out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and six points behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
A panic may have been averted with Thursday’s win, but there’s an increased sense of urgency with nearly a sixth of the season already done.
“We’re still some way from getting back to respectability,” Dineen said. “We have a long way to go.”
Florida begins a four-game road trip Sunday in Buffalo. The Panthers will face the Sabres in a 3 p.m. contest, then remain in New York to watch the Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.
Defenseman Brian Campbell, who played in Buffalo for eight seasons, has been tasked with arranging the team’s Super Bowl gathering.
“We’re anxious to get on the road for a while and spend some time together,” Weiss said. “Those are the times teams come together and really gel. Especially with the Super Bowl party. That’s always a fun day to get together, have some dinner, watch some football and get the bets going.”
Weiss said he likes the 49ers to win, as does Shore. Versteeg is picking the Ravens to capture their second Super Bowl title, while Dineen opted for a no-lose choice: “Harbaugh.”
Florida will practice in Buffalo on Monday, then travel to Winnipeg for a Tuesday night contest. The Panthers will visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday and face the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
Florida will be without Scottie Upshall for anywhere from a couple weeks to a month.
Upshall suffered an ankle injury during a fight with Winnipeg’s James Wright on Thursday. At the end of the bout, the winger got caught along the boards and landed on his foot.
Upshall was seen at Florida’s practice facility Friday walking with the aid of crutches.
Defenseman Ed Jovanovski is day-to-day with a knee injury.
The Panthers loaned Gudbranson and Mike Santorelli to the San Antonio Rampage, Florida’s AHL affiliate. Gudbranson is expected to start a couple games to get back into game shape before making his season debut during the Panthers’ road trip. Santorelli, meanwhile, became the odd man out among Florida’s forwards. Dineen said the assignment is an opportunity for Santorelli to regain his confidence. The forward is slated to center Quinton Howden and Jed Ortmeyer in San Antonio.
Howden became the fourth Panthers prospect to make his NHL debut this season. The winger appeared in Florida’s 7-1 loss to Philadelphia on Jan. 26, recording one shot and a minus-3 rating.
The Panthers acquired forward Zach Hamill from the Capitals in exchange for forward Casey Wellman. Hamill, the eighth overall selection in the 2007 NHL draft, will report to San Antonio.