SUNRISE (CBSMiami/SportsDirect) -- The Eastern Conference is tightly packed and a new contender has emerged.
The Florida Panthers are reaching unfamiliar but much welcomed heights.
Center Aleksander Barkov scored twice as the Panthers defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 Sunday night. The victory lifted the Panthers (20-12-4, 44 points) to first place in the Atlantic Division after the Boston Bruins lost to the Ottawa Senators earlier Sunday.
"Last year, we were not even close to that spot," Barkov said. "We just have to keep playing the same way and winning games."
Florida has not led its division since 2011-12, when the Panthers won the Southeast Division and last qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. On Nov. 27, the Panthers were sixth in the division and trailed leader Montreal by 16 points.
The win also was the Panthers' sixth straight, their longest unbeaten streak since a seven-game stretch March 2-16, 2008.
"It's a lot of fun when we're playing the way we are," Florida coach Gerard Gallant said. "It's about playing consistent 60-minute games, and we're doing a good job of that."
Barkov's second goal at 7:23 of the third period gave the Panthers their second two-goal advantage of the game. Barkov and left winger Jonathan Huberdeau caught the Blue Jackets on a two-on-one break as Huberdeau's cross found Barkov, who beat Columbus goaltender Curtis McElhinney with a shot from the right circle. It was his ninth goal of the season.
Columbus right winger Cam Atkinson scored on a power play at 11:26 of the third period to cut Florida's lead to 3-2, but that was as close as the Blue jackets get.
Atkinson beat Florida goalie Roberto Luongo with a shot just outside the crease for his 11th goal of the season.
In its search for the tying goal, Columbus overcame an 19-1 deficit in shots on goal deficit in the first period and two five-on-three man disadvantages.
"We didn't play a good first period," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. "I'm not going to get into all the words and all that. We found a way to get our legs underneath us and try to generate some offense. We had a little push at the end."
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad scored Florida's other goal in the first period, and left winger Brandon Saad scored the Blue Jackets' first goal in the second period.
Luongo stopped 15 of 17 shots for the win, while McElhinney stopped 29 of 32 shots.
Florida, which is now 17-3-2 when scoring first, struck quickly on Ekblad's fourth goal of the year 4:34 into the game. Ekblad retrieved right winger Reilly Smith's pass, and his slap shot outside the right circle eluded McElhinney on the short side.
Barkov's goal with 18 seconds left in the first period gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead. Huberdeau's pass from behind the net found Barkov near the crease, where he beat McElhinney with a wrist shot.
Outshot badly in the first period, the Blue Jackets applied repeated pressure in the opening minutes of the second period with six unanswered shots on goal. The seventh shot resulted in Saad's 13th goal of the season at 7:59. Saad beat Luongo from a tight angle on the left wing that reduced Florida's lead to 2-1.
"We came out and took it to them," Gallant said. "We had a lot of energy.
"They came back and battled hard. From the second period on, they played well."
The Panthers were not concerned that the wasted scoring opportunities in the first period would become a factor after the Blue Jackets' late push.
"Defensive plays at the end helped us win," Huberdeau said. "Sometimes you have so many chances and you don't put them in. Two points is all that matters."
NOTES: Blue Jackets LW Nick Foligno sat out the game because of an undisclosed injury. The Columbus captain did not travel with the team during its two-game stop at Tampa Bay and Florida. ... Although reports indicate he soon could return to the lineup, Columbus G Sergei Bobrovsky remains on the injured list because of a lingering groin ailment. The former Vezina Trophy winner traveled with the team to Florida but has not played since sustaining the injury Dec. 9. ... Florida D Dave Bolland missed his second consecutive game because of an undisclosed injury since being recalled from AHL Portland on Dec. 21. ... Panthers C Nick Bjugstad missed his 12th consecutive game because of migraines but worked out during the team's morning skate on Sunday. ... The Panthers enjoyed a four-day stretch without games, their longest of the season.
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