It's hard to believe some may still be questioning the legitimacy of the Florida Panthers. One look at the recent opponents they've not only beaten, but done so handily, should shut down any remaining critics.
Another challenge awaits the high-flying Panthers, who bring a five-game win streak into Saturday night's matchup with red-hot Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After a 25-point improvement from 2013-14, Florida (31-15-5) was expected to at least compete for a playoff spot this season as its young talent continued to mature. However, nobody could've predicted they would be leading the Atlantic Division at this point and ranking among the league's elite teams.
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The Panthers seem likely to reach the postseason for the second time in 16 years and could also surpass the franchise record of 98 points set in 1999-00.
Critics may have been ready to pounce after the team was outscored 13-3 during a three-game skid last month, but Florida has rebounded with a vengeance.
It kicked off a five-game win streak with a 4-0 rout of reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago on Jan. 22 and followed with wins over Tampa Bay, Toronto and league-leading Washington before Thursday's 6-3 victory against Detroit.
The Panthers have outscored those opponents 25-8 and tallied five or more goals in four consecutive games for the first time in franchise history.
“I don't know. Seriously,” coach Gerard Gallant said when asked to explain the secret to Florida's offensive success of late. “Teams go on streaks. We're putting pucks to the net and guys are confident.”
Vincent Trochek leads the way with five goals and eight points in that span, while Reilly Smith, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have three goals apiece.
“We're clicking,” said Trocheck, who has goals in four straight. “We're playing great hockey. There's something special in this group.”
Roberto Luongo has recorded four of those wins with a 1.50 goals-against average and a shutout. However, he's 1-2-3 with a 2.91 GAA in his past six starts against Pittsburgh.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who turns 20 Sunday, has been a part of 17 straight wins, the longest streak by any player since Mathieu Dandenault won 19 in a row with Detroit from Nov. 2, 1995-Feb. 13, 1996.
Pittsburgh (25-18-7) had a four-game win streak snapped with a 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay on Friday despite registering 10 of the game's first 11 shots and Crosby scoring in his fifth consecutive game.
“It's discouraging,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We played the right way for the most part and we don't get rewarded for it. That happens sometimes. We have to find a way to stay the course.”
The Penguins captain has nine goals and six assists during a nine-game point streak and a league-high 15 goals since Dec. 26. It's Crosby's longest streak since a career-best 25-gamer Nov. 5-Dec. 28, 2010. He is one point shy of 900, needing one in the next two games to become the 10th-fastest to the milestone.
Crosby will shoulder a big offensive burden again with Evgeni Malkin (lower body) set to miss his second straight game. Malkin, who leads the team with 23 goals and 49 points, scored in overtime to give the Penguins a 3-2 victory over Florida on Oct. 20.
Games on back-to-back nights could give Marc-Andre Fleury a chance to rebound from Friday's abbreviated outing. He was pulled midway through the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots, ending his personal five-game win streak.
Fleury has allowed nine goals on 37 shots in his last two starts.
Pittsburgh is 3-0-1 in its last four against Florida.