Originally posted on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 1/23/12

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Even an upbeat player like Florida's Kris Versteeg -- impromptu singer and decent rapper, he of the major flow who constantly chews on his mouthpiece -- had to admit that his recent struggles were "a little difficult." In fact, you could call it quite a funk the funky 25-year-old Alberta native has been trapped in.

Entering Saturday night's game at Winnipeg, where he scored a hattrick on Nov. 10, Versteeg had been stymied around the net, stuck for nine straight games on the number 17 like a gambler working on an anxious hand of blackjack. Seventeen goals in 36 games -- a pace of 39 over a full season -- soon turned in to 17 goals in 45 games, with far too many missed chances in that span.

"I've been kind of brutal as of late," Versteeg said. "I've been missing a lot of opportunities -- a lot of open nets, a lot of breakaways. I don't know how many posts (I've hit) in the last 10 games...It's been frustrating. I can't explain it. The other game in Chicago (on Friday) I had an open net on the goal line, and somehow I shoot it out the far side.

"I've probably missed five or six wide, wide open nets. I've never experienced anything like that. It's adversity you try to fight through, but you pray to the hockey gods for a bounce here or there."

The gods came through Saturday when Versteeg scored twice and added an assist in Florida's 4-3 shootout win over the Jets. For good measure, Versteeg even gave life to the Panthers' woeful shootout crew by connecting in the second round to match Kyle Wellwood on an almost identical move, flipping a backhanded shot over Jets' netminder Ondrej Pavelec. An excited Versteeg, wearing his headgear backwards as a rally helmet, was quick to meet Mikael Samuelsson on the ice after netting the game-winner in the shootout's seventh round.

After Marcel Goc leaped to keep the puck in the offensive zone, the center fed Versteeg, who scored his first goal with a neat backhander after deking Pavelec. In the third period less than a minute after the Jets tied it at 2-2, Versteeg picked off Tobias Enstrom's breakout pass near the high slot and fired on Pavelec, who gloved it but couldn't keep it out.

"It was a time coming for myself," said a relieved Versteeg, who can usually be found after games wearing a cool Miami Heat hat bearing his No. 32. Even cooler to the Cats and coach Kevin Dineen, he now has a team-high 19 goals and 42 points.

The first-place Panthers hope Versteeg's breakout night is a return to form of the season's first 30 games when the right winger, center Stephen Weiss and left winger Tomas Fleischmann formed the league's most productive top line. Teams lately, though, have focused on the trio, primarily sending out its top defensive pairing to neutralize the line, and it's worked -- which probably has plenty to do with Florida's 5-14-6 mark in games when scoring two goals or less.

Weiss showed signs of breaking out Wednesday against Colorado. His sliding goal through the crease past J-S Giguere broke a 15-game goal drought. Fleischmann had a chance to get off the schneid with 20 seconds left in overtime in Winnipeg, but his potential game-winner from the doorstep was stopped by Pavelec. Weiss needs to keep improving, while Fleischmann, stuck on 15 goals for eight games, needs to score.

But I'm not worried about Steeger. He's hip again.

By Bill Whitehead
Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL
Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com

Photo credit: Getty Images
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