SUNRISE (CBSMiami/AP) — The Florida Panthers aren't just the surprise team in South Florida, but also the entire NHL.
Usually around this time, the 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 are going 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.
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 just once in the last 14 seasons.
Florida awoke on Jan. 1, 2000 in first, did the same to start 2012 and now will do it again in 2016.
"It's just fun," Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "When I came back here, 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 in the NHL 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 is tenuous at best, and a playoff spot is far from secured. But the Panthers are no longer hockey's pushovers.
"We're not lying to anybody," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said.
Gallant took over before the start of last season, inheriting a team that finished with only 66 points the year before. In Gallant's first season, the Panthers got to 91 points and were in the playoff chase until the season's final days.
The momentum has carried over, and then some.
"To be honest with you, when I got the job I was pretty excited because I'd seen the young talent," Gallant said. "I didn't know how good they all were going to be, but I knew (Jonathan) Huberdeau, I knew (Sasha) Barkov, I knew (Erik) Gudbranson, all those guys. So I knew that if I could get by the first year or so, and we made some strides, things could take off."
The young guys have done their part.
So, of course, has the NHL's oldest player.
At 43, Jaromir Jagr leads the Panthers in scoring. 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 Huberdeau and Barkov is one of the NHL'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 out of 17 games — getting 14 of a possible 34 standings points — during one stretch earlier this season, and were looking up at the pack in the East playoff chase.
They're 13-3 since, with 26 of a possible 32 standings points.
Fans are noticing. Holiday-time home games against Montreal and the New York Rangers have always drawn well, but there seems to be a few more Panthers fans in the team's arena than usual.
And the team's projections suggest that ticket numbers will be solid, at least, for the rest of the season.
"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."
The Panthers face the New York Rangers on Saturday, January 2nd at 7:00 p.m. You can hear every game on Sports Radio 560 WQAM, the radio home of the Florida Panthers.
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