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Surprising Panthers End Record Breaking December In First Place

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SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – It has certainly been a December to remember for the Florida Panthers.

With the team's 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, the Panthers completed the best month of hockey in franchise history and now sit atop the Atlantic Division.

With the 2015 portion of Florida's schedule now complete, the team can look ahead to the New Year knowing that it can play with, and beat, any opponent in the NHL.

It's amazing how much things can change in a month.

When December began, the Panthers (21-12-4) were in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and 6th in the Atlantic Division, trailing the first place Canadiens by 15 points.

Following Tuesday's win, Florida now finds itself in first place in the Atlantic Division and second in the Eastern Conference.

"A lot of people didn't expect us to be in first place in the New Year and like I said, it's all about trying to make the playoffs," said head coach Gerard Gallant after beating Montreal. "That's our goal. It's not about first place or where you're at; it's about getting as many points as a pack as you can."

December was kind to the Cats as they finished the month with an 11-3-0 record, setting franchise marks for wins (11) and points (22) in any month.

The 11 wins are also the most for any team in the league this month, as are the 22 points.

The Panthers have reeled off seven consecutive wins, tying a franchise record, and have emerged victorious in 13 of the team's last 16 games.

Every year there is a different team that surprises the league by exceeding expectations. This year that could very well be the Panthers.

"You know, we're on a good roll now and we got to keep it going because there's a lot of the season left, we got more than half the season left to go," said Gallant. "Things change in a hurry so we just have to keep playing well and getting points when we can."

Goaltending has played a big part in Florida's recent success.

Roberto Luongo went 8-3-0 in December, winning his last six starts while recording a .929 save percentage, 1.80 goals against average and a shutout in his 11 games played.

Backup Al Montoya has been amazing all season and December was no exception.  He went 3-0-0 while earning a .950 save percentage, 0.98 goals against average and surrendering just three goals in his three games.

On the offensive side of things, 20-year-old top line center Aleksander Barkov led the way for the Panthers, picking up 13 points (5g 8a) in 14 games, while defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forwards Reilly Smith and Barkov tied for the team lead in goals with five apiece.

Forward Jonathan Huberdeau paced the team with nine assists during December.

"We have great confidence," said Barkov following Tuesday's win. "The team had a pretty good end of the [season] last year, that's why we have had good confidence all year here and we know each other pretty well, that's why it's a lot of fun to come here every day and work hard."

Florida begins 2016 with back-to-back home games against the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild to wrap up their current six-game homestand before heading out on a six-game road trip that will include three division games and a visit to western Canada.

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.

Follow David on Twitter (@DavidDwork)


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