Winchester settles into new Florida home

Ottawa Senators' Chris Phillips (4) and Florida Panthers' Jesse Winchester (17) battle during the first period of a NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

SUNRISE, Florida – Jesse Winchester couldn’t resist the joke at his own expense.

Asked if he might do anything different while playing against his old Ottawa Senators teammates for the first time here Tuesday, he replied, “ah, keep my elbows down.”

That, of course, was in reference to the three-game suspension he received for elbowing Chris Kelly of the Boston Bruins last month, the same Chris Kelly he shared a dressing room with while both were playing for the Senators. That suspension cost Winchester a chance to play against the Senators when the Florida Panthers visited the Canadian Tire Centre on November 9.

Other than that, however, Winchester has seemingly done little wrong since earning a spot on the Panthers roster out of training camp, despite the disadvantage of owning a two-way contract ($600,000 in the NHL, $125,000 in the minors), earning raves from new coach Peter Horachek and old coach Kevin Dineen for his consistent, determined work ethic as a fourth line centre and penalty killer. On top of that, Winchester had chipped in with four goals and four assists in 21 games before meeting the Senators Tuesday.

After dealing with major concussion problems with the Senators during the 2011-12 season, Winchester couldn’t find a home in North America during the lockout season, but worked his way back thanks to success with a pair of teams in Finland, where he says he grew up quite a bit.

“It got me back on the map,” said Winchester, 30, the Long Sault native who was originally signed by the Senators as a free agent out of Colgate in 2008 and spent four seasons with the Senators.

“I was happy playing a game I love at a high level. It gave me a better perspective and a good mindset set going into the summer, working my way back. It took a long time (to get comfortable). Not so much the concussion symptoms, they were gone. It was getting ready to get involved in situations you have to deal with in order to play. You have to put yourself in harm’s way.”

Horachek says Winchester is a role model for the style he wants the Panthers to play.

“He’s not afraid to go into the hard areas,” he said. “He’s pretty good on the walls. Before I got here, he was one of the players who was doing what he needed to do and living up to his responsibilities.”

While Winchester’s first game against his old team didn’t carry quite the same hype as Daniel Alfredsson’s first game, he acknowledges game brought back countless memories.

“It was special to break into the league with them and spend more exciting years there,” he said. “There are a lot of good friends (there). It was close to home, there were so many supporters. It was a great experience, but this one is, too.”

There are a few fringe benefits, too. Tuesday morning he talked to his parents back home, hearing about the freezing rain. When the morning skate ended Tuesday, he walked out into the sunshine and the 27-degree heat.

GOALIE REUNION ON TAP: Robin Lehner figures he’ll touch base with Ben Bishop at some point Wednesday, in advance of Thursday’s game between the Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even as they battled for playing time with the Ottawa and Binghamton Senators before Bishop was traded to Tampa for Cory Conacher last March, they were friends as well as competitors.

Bishop has taken full advantage of his chance to become a number one goaltender. Before Tuesday’s games, he was tied for third in the NHL with 14 wins, was ninth with a 2.08 goals against average and 11th with a .931 save percentage.

Lehner, who served as a back-up to Craig Anderson Tuesday in Florida, owns a .933 save percentage, eighth in the NHL.

KULIKOV TAKES A SEAT: Dmitry Kulikov has some idea what Jared Cowen went through last week. Kulikov, a mainstay on the top four of the Panthers defence for the past couple seasons, was a healthy scratch against the Senators as Horachek grew impatient with his mistakes. Kulikov, 23, was selected 14th overall in the 2009 entry draft, five spots after the Senators chose Cowen. Cowen was a healthy scratch Thursday against Vancouver and only played in Sunday’s game against Detroit because Marc Methot was suffering from the flu.

“I think most of this is mental, the mistakes I made weren’t forced,” Kulikov told Florida reporters. “I shouldn’t have made them, but what happened happened and I just have to work hard to get it out of me and not worry about it.”

Horachek’s decision didn’t sit well with him, however. “I didn’t think I was playing bad enough to get thrown out of the lineup, but it is the coach’s decision. Yeah, I was surprised.”

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