Jets-Panthers Preview

The Associated Press

The Florida Panthers returned from the All-Star break to reclaim the Southeast Division lead.

Now, the Panthers will try to expand it by beating the Winnipeg Jets for the second time in less than two weeks Friday night when the division rivals meet at BankAtlantic Center.

The Panthers (23-15-11) returned from a week off Wednesday, and showed little rust in a 4-2 win over Washington, moving ahead of the Capitals in the division race.

Florida, 12-5-7 at home, leads the Southeast by one point over Washington and is three ahead of third-place Winnipeg (24-22-6).

"It's good to start off on a good note after a little break here, coming back," right wing Mikael Samuelsson said. "At the same time, we have to concentrate on the next game pretty much right away because it's so tight and we need the wins."

Samuelsson has provided unexpected offensive punch for the Panthers, scoring three goals in two games after netting two against the Capitals. He also scored the decisive shootout attempt in the seventh round of a 4-3 win at Winnipeg on Jan. 21.

Five of the past six games against the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise have gone beyond regulation, and Florida is 3-0-3 in that stretch - 2-0-1 this season.

Kris Versteeg has five goals and two assists in the last two meetings with Winnipeg, leading the Panthers to wins in both. That includes two goals and one assist versus the division rival two weeks ago.

The left wing's status, however, is in question after flu-like symptoms sidelined him Wednesday. Another absence would leave Florida without its leading scorer, who has 19 goals and 43 points. He's two goals shy of his total from last season with Toronto and Philadelphia, and three off his career high set with Chicago in 2008-09.

Tomas Fleischmann might help pick up the scoring slack if Versteeg isn't available. The left wing had two assists Wednesday after scoring a goal in a 3-2 shootout loss to Philadelphia on Jan. 24 before heading into the All-Star break.

Fleischmann was limited to one shot by the Jets on Jan. 21 after getting three goals and four assists in the previous three meetings dating to a win at Atlanta on Dec. 10, 2010.

Winnipeg may be prepared if another matchup with the Panthers going beyond regulation after winning its last two games in that fashion.

The Jets beat Tampa Bay 2-1 in overtime Thursday, two days after a shootout victory by the same score at Philadelphia.

"'We had a lot of energy, and I think we were willing to play 65 minutes if we needed to, plus a shootout if it had to go that far," said right wing Blake Wheeler, who scored in the second period and assisted on Kyle Wellwood's goal 3:14 into overtime Thursday. "I think we're just dedicated right now."

Winnipeg has split the first four games of this stretch of six in a row on the road, and is in position for its first three-game winning streak as the visitor since Dec. 4-13, 2010.

Nik Antropov has three goals and four assists in the past seven games, netting two of those goals against the Panthers last month. The center added two assists in the other two season meetings, including one in a 4-3 shootout victory in Florida on Oct. 31.

Antropov has scored only one of his eight goals on the road.

The Jets conclude their road stretch at Montreal on Sunday.

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