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First Place Panthers Know There Is Still Work To Be Done

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SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – The Florida Panthers have come a long way in a short amount of time.

After an inconsistent start to the season, Florida found itself trailing the first place Montreal Canadiens by 16 points in the Atlantic Division on Thanksgiving Day.

The Panthers had just finished a stretch where they lost nine of twelve games and were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, trailing the final Wild Card spot by five points.

They trailed the Ottawa Senators by nine points and the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning by five points each.

The Panthers were also about to embark on a five-game road trip through places like St. Louis, Nashville and Columbus, places that Florida hadn't earned a victory in years.

Indeed, things were not looking very promising in Sunrise and there was little confidence among fans and the media that the young Panthers could make up that much ground.

Well not only have they caught up to each and every one of the aforementioned division rivals, Florida has passed them and moved into first place.

Following their 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets on Sunday, the Panthers (20-12-4) were all alone atop the Atlantic Division with 44 points in 36 games.

Since Thanksgiving Florida has won 12 of their 15 games, including winning streaks of five games and their current streak of six.

It's still a very tight race with just two points separating first place and fifth place but the red-hot Panthers have shown no signs of slowing down.

Florida has already set new franchise records for wins (10) and points (20) in the month of December with one game remaining before the calendar flips to 2016.

"It's exciting," said coach Gerard Gallant. "It's almost a new year and being in first place means a lot. Again, we're probably five or six points and we're out of the playoffs. But if you keep winning, keep getting points, it's a lot of fun."

The franchise record for points in a month is 21. The Panthers can eclipse that mark with a win on Tuesday against the reeling Canadiens, who have lost six straight games and nine of their last 10.

Montreal plays at Tampa Bay on Monday night.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Panthers run of success has been that they have done it while dealing with injuries to several key players.

Centers Nick Bjugstad and Derek MacKenzie and defensemen Alex Petrovic and Steven Kampfer have all missed time during the successful run.

Florida didn't skip a beat though, getting solid play from AHL call-ups such as Logan Shaw, Corban Knight, Dylan Olsen, Rocco Grimaldi, Connor Brickley and Quinton Howden.

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has done a great job revamping the entire organization and the depth that the franchise has is beyond impressive.

Tallon was scrutinized for being fairly inactive during the offseason, with the only moves of note being the re-signing of 43-year-old superstar Jaromir Jagr and the acquisition of 24-year-old Reilly Smith from Boston in exchange for Jimmy Hayes.

Jagr currently leads the Panthers in scoring with 25 points (10g 15a) while Smith leads the team in goals with 11.

Smith joined a very young core group of players in Florida that are flourishing with the opportunity Tallon provided them by not bringing in new players during the summer.

20-year-old Aleksander Barkov, 22-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau, 22-year-old Vincent Trocheck and Smith all have 20 or more points on the season.

Fellow youngsters Brandon Pirri (24) and Aaron Ekblad (19) are right behind them with 18 points and 17 points, respectively.

Huberdeau won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2013 while Ekblad took home the same hardware last season.

It isn't just the young players that are making a difference for the Panthers though.

Defensemen Willie Mitchell (38) and Brian Campbell (36) bring consistency and stability to Florida's back line while Jussi Jokinen (32), Shawn Thornton (38) and MacKenzie (34) provide wisdom and leadership to the Panthers youthful forward group.

Jokinen is also tied with Huberdeau with 23 points this season, good for second on the team behind Jagr.

"We have been playing great for a while," said Barkov. "We have really good players on this team. We have high confidence. Last year we weren't even close to this spot. We just need to keep playing this way, winning games."

And then there's 36-year-old goaltender Roberto Luongo who has been playing at an elite level since being re-acquired by the Panthers at the 2013 trade deadline.

Luongo is proving that he has plenty of gas left in the tank as he currently holds a 15-11-3 record, including his current 5-game winning streak, and a .924 save percentage.

There is still more than half the season to go and Florida plays in an extremely tightly packed division but the combination of youth and experience on the roster is gaining confidence by the day.

Even with all of the team's recent success, the players are quick to point out that they haven't accomplished anything yet.

The goal from the beginning of training camp has been to make the playoffs, something the Panthers have only done once since 2000 and just four times in the team's 22-year existence.

"We've been on a pretty good run lately, but this is just game 36," said Thornton following Sunday's win over Columbus. "I'm happy with where we're at, but we have a long way to go. We just have to stay the course, keep playing smart."

The Panthers face the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, December 29th at 7:30 p.m. You can hear every game on Sports Radio 560 WQAM, the radio home of the Florida Panthers.

Follow David on Twitter (@DavidDwork)

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