Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers-Panthers Preview
Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers-Panthers Preview

Published Jan. 1, 2016 4:56 p.m. ET

(AP) - Usually around this time, the Florida Panthers are more than 10 points out of first place and languishing somewhere toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference with playoff hopes already in jeopardy.

Not this season.

The Panthers went into New Year's Day as a first-place team for just the third time in franchise history, their seven-game winning streak pushing them atop the Atlantic Division. They'll host the New York Rangers on Saturday night looking to snap series losing streaks of seven games overall and four at home.

No one is ordering banners yet, but it's a sign of major progress for a team that hasn't won a playoff series since 1996 and has been to the postseason once in 14 seasons.


Florida (21-12-4) awoke on Jan. 1, 2000, in first, did the same to start 2012 and did it again in 2016.

''It's just fun,'' goaltender Roberto Luongo said. ''When I came back here (traded from Vancouver in March 2014), obviously it was to try to take this team to the next level. I'm not saying it's because of me, but there's a lot of skill in this room that's come a long way in the last year. We want to make the playoffs, we want to try to make a run and right now we're putting some points in the bank.''

Florida went 11-3 in December, the second-best record of any team during the final month of 2015. Only Washington was better, and the Panthers' .786 December winning percentage was the third-best month in the history of the franchise - topped only by what they did in October 1996 (8-0-4, .833) and November 1995 (10-2-1, .808).

The hold on first was tenuous and didn't last a full day into the new year, as Montreal defeated Boston 5-1 in the Winter Classic on Friday to jump a point ahead of Florida. The Panthers, though, are no longer hockey's pushovers.

''We're not lying to anybody,'' coach Gerard Gallant said.

The momentum of Gallant's first season of 2014-15, in which the Panthers got to 91 points and were in the playoff chase until the season's final days, has carried over.

Florida's young talent has been complemented and led by the NHL's oldest player. At 43, Jaromir Jagr tops the Panthers with 26 points. He's scored in nine games; the Panthers are 7-1-1 in those. Teammates rave about his work ethic, and the line he's on with Jonathan Huberdeau, 22, and Aleksander Barkov, 20, is one of the league's best.

''The thing is, no matter how talented the guys you get are or how much you tell yourself that you should win, it doesn't work like that,'' Jagr said. ''You have to experience that. You have to go through it. You have to learn how to win.

"It's no accident that Chicago won three Cups in six years. They learned how to win and they believe in their game. They believe in their identity. We've had to build our identity.''

The Panthers lost 12 of 17 games during one stretch earlier this season, and were looking up at the pack in the East playoff chase. They're 13-3 since.

''It's a long season,'' Luongo said. ''Things can change quickly. Every game is hard work, and we have that mentality. When you have that mentality coming into every game, you can be good.''

New York (21-13-4) earned a much-needed 5-2 victory over Tampa Bay on Wednesday and will be looking for a sweep of its Florida trip. Dominic Moore put New York ahead early in the third and defenseman Dan Boyle had a goal and an assist as the Rangers ended an eight-game road losing streak.

Viktor Stalberg and Rick Nash had empty net goals for New York, 5-10-2 in its last 17 overall but winner of two of three.

''We had a lot of good talks the last 24 hours about coming back to the team we really are,'' goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. ''Play to our strengths and it starts really with hard work. We played really well tonight. We showed ourselves what we need to do to have success.''

Boyle has five goals and four assists in his last 10 games, while Mats Zuccarello also scored to give him five and four in the past nine. Nash recorded a goal for the second consecutive game.

Zuccarello had a goal and two assists and Nash completed a hat trick in overtime of a 5-4 victory at Sunrise in the last meeting Nov. 21. Zuccarello has 14 points in 12 career games against the Panthers, while Nash has five goals in his last three meetings.


Henrik Lundqvist
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