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Florida Panthers finish strong, end five-game skid

A few hours after their coach called them out for playing a little soft and questioning their effort, the Panthers responded.

The Panthers fell behind twice in the third period Thursday yet battled back to beat visiting Winnipeg 6-3 to snap a five-game losing streak that threatened to end their season just as it was starting.

“We were feeling it,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “We always try to say the right things when we are in the muck. We were in the deep end there. We’re still not out of, don’t kid ourselves, it’s only one win. We’re a long way from respectability. But this was a good step.”

With former Panthers captain Olli Jokinen seething in the penalty box for tripping Jarred Smithson, Alex Kovalev’s wrist shot from the left circle beat Ondrej Pavelec with 7:23 left for what stood up as the game-winning goal.

The Panthers, tied for fewest goals in the league coming in, added two more in the final minutes to turn a close game into a laugher.

And few teams needed to smile more than the Panthers.

“I can’t explain this,” Kovalev said afterward. “We looked at the standings this morning. Things aren’t too far from us despite our losses. Two or three wins and we’re back in the playoff race. But [Thursday night] was really important. We did some real good things out there. We improved our game.’’

Florida, which scored 10 goals in the opening six games, scored five times in the third period alone Thursday.

And now the Panthers, at 2-5-0, can embark on a rough four-game trip with that large storm cloud removed from their psyche.

“We kept bouncing back,” Dineen said. “We had some real kick in the tails lately, and that was a little bit of the identity we were trying to build on and hadn’t seen. We kept the gas pedal down.”

Florida hopes its injured list continues to shrink as top players such as Kris Versteeg and Marcel Goc returned to the lineup in recent days.

On Thursday, Versteeg got his first goal in his second game. That tied the score at 2 after Florida had given up a 1-0 lead it held in the second.

“It was nice to be a part of this,” Versteeg said. “This was a character win as everyone stepped up to be a part of it. It was good to see. We need to build from this.”

Jokinen, who was traded away from the Panthers in 2008 by Jacques Martin, doesn’t really recognize this Florida team save for the logo.

The only player on the ice who shared time with Jokinen with the Panthers was Shawn Matthias — and that was for a four-game emergency call-up.

Still, playing in South Florida — where his family still calls home during the offseason — is special to Jokinen.

On Thursday, he made sure the Panthers remembered him as he charged in on Theodore and scored off a pass from Blake Wheeler to give the Jets a 2-1 lead.

Florida tied it at 2 on Versteeg’s goal, but the Jets retook the lead on Tobias Enstrom’s slap shot on a loose puck in the circle.

The Panthers’ anemic offense did some serious damage, however, during a seven-minute span in the third as Peter Mueller scored for the third consecutive game to tie the score at 3.

Just over a minute later, Kovalev scored after Jokinen’s tripping penalty to make it 4-3 as the Panthers took their second lead of the night.

Not long after Kovalev scored his second of the season, rookie Jonathan Huberdeau got his second of the year by driving in on Pavelec and firing; Huberdeau’s shot ricocheted off Zach Redmond and into the net for a 5-3 lead with 4:31 remaining.

Both Kovalev and Huberdeau hadn’t scored since the opening-night win.

Florida ended things with Tomas Kopecky’s empty-net goal with 1:28 remaining. Kopecky finished with a goal and an assist.

“It was a lucky bounce, but we’ll take it,” Huberdeau said of his goal. “It was a big goal, opened things up.

“We need to start a winning streak now. We’re going to keep moving forward.”

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