UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Good things happen to the Florida Panthers when Kris Versteeg scores. In the 16 games that the 25-year old has potted his 22 goals on the season, Florida is 14-1-1.
As part of a summer press conference that was held at BankAtlantic Center on July 8th to introduce nine new players, Versteeg has proven that he adapts to new situations quickly.
Tying a career-high in goals with his 22nd on Sunday afternoon during a 4-1 win over the New York Islanders, Versteeg has surpassed the 20-goal mark in each of his first four NHL seasons. Even after splitting time last season between the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs, he managed to adjust to another system and hit the mark.
"Last year, it was an injury-filled year pretty much," Versteeg said.
"You start off a little slow and then you get in the groove of things and right when I thought I was playing really good you get traded to a new place. Then you start off slow again and kind of try to adapt and learn a new system, so it's been tough, but I still try to help the team whatever way I can, whether it's defense or by putting it in the net. I've been fortunate enough to play with some good players, so it's been helping."
Along with fellow newcomer Tomas Fleischmann (42 points) and franchise stalwart Stephen Weiss (40 points), Versteeg and company have turn general manager Dale Tallon's summer of free-spending into a season where Panthers fans might witness a playoff game for the first time since the spring of 2000.
Florida sits four points ahead of the Washington Capitals for the Southeast Division lead and as things currently sit in the Eastern Conference, the team that fails to win the division title may find themselves watching the playoffs rather than competing. That's why Sunday's win against the Islanders, coupled with Washington's loss to the New York Rangers earlier in the day, was huge as the Panthers head into the final 27 games of the season.
"Both teams are crawling and fighting for points," said Versteeg. "A couple times, here and there, we've given games away, but also we've found a way to win games. It's going to be a tight race coming in, but we gotta find ways to win games."
Winning games they have. Florida's won three in a row, including a back-to-back against the New Jersey Devils and Islanders where they fell behind 1-0 both games. The winning streak comes on the heels of two straight losses to the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, but these weekend victories in the Tri-State area saw a change in demeanor within the team once they found themselves playing from behind early.
"We got down against Washington and it just seemed like we were a little uncomfortable and a little bit out of our sync and a little frazzled," said Panthers Head Coach Kevin Dineen. "
"The last two, you got down a couple goals and it was like 'alright, come on boys, let's get 'er going'. It makes a big difference from that. You can really feel the temperature of what your team is about and it didn't seem to distract us too badly to be down a couple goals."
It's not often Panthers fans find themselves watching meaningful hockey late in the season, but this year there will be a fight to the final day of the season for a playoff spot -- whether it's for the division crown or a place in the East's top-8. That's the change in culture that Tallon's brought to the organization. His free-spending ways over the summer may have been so that the team could get over the salary cap floor, but the roster changeover was necessary and has equated to winning.
The Panthers' success has reinvigorating a fanbase that's long been waiting to watch a winner again. The crowds at BankAtlantic Center are growing and the "rebuilding" word that fans were used to hearing on an annual basis is out of their daily vernacular, for a change.
Versteeg spent three seasons coming to South Florida as an opponent and now that he's on the home side, he's felt the changing vibe within the crowd.
"You know, you [used to] go into Florida almost thinking you're going to get two points as a team before," Versteeg said. "I think now teams coming in know they're gonna have a tougher game than maybe in previous years. The fans definitely have been helping that and coming out and supporting. In a small market when you haven't won for so many years it's tough to get fan support and get your fanbase back."
"The only way you can do that is by winning."
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy