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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

New top line fuels Panthers' rise in standings

Tuesday, 12.20.2011 / 6:43 PM / NHL Teamwork

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

Even though this is an era where NHL coaches shuffle their lines from game to game and sometimes from shift to shift, there have been some standout forward trios.

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Anaheim's line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan is one. Washington's trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble was another. When Chicago's Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews play together, or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as well, that trio is inevitably among the League's best.

One of the NHL's top lines during the 2011-12 season has been a complete surprise for a number of reasons. Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg have formed a potent triumvirate as the top line for the Florida Panthers, who have stormed to the top of the Southeast Division.

"We all want to play the best for this team and win hockey games," Fleischmann said. "We're working hard out there and that's what we're trying to do. It's been working so far. Everybody's just contributing to winning hockey games. We don't have all those superstars out there. Everybody's doing their job."

All three players are among the top 25 scorers in the League after the games played Monday. Versteeg leads the Panthers with 34 points (and 16 goals), while Weiss (32 points) and Fleischmann (30) are not far behind.

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Versteeg and Fleischmann weren’t on the team last season. They were two of many additions made by general manager Dale Tallon this summer as he completely remade the roster. Weiss is one of the few holdovers, but he had never lived up to expectations created when he was the fourth pick in the 2001 NHL Draft.

Fleischmann and Versteeg had never been consistent top-line players for an NHL team, and Weiss, when he part of Florida's No. 1 unit, often underperformed. Fleischmann averaged a point per game after moving from Washington to Colorado last season, but he missed most of the campaign because of a second round of troubles with blood clots.

"The health is the most important and I had to take care of that," Fleischmann said. "Everything seems good right now. I feel normal. Everything feels really good."

The Panthers have been one of the surprise teams in the NHL. They lead the Southeast with 42 points – eight more than second-place Winnipeg -- and their top trio has been a big reason for that.

They're also doing the job at both ends of the ice -- all three are among the top 14 in plus-minus rating this season. Weiss is plus-18, Versteeg is plus-17 and Fleischmann is plus-16.

Pretty good for three guys who had never played with each other before coming to training camp.

"I don't really know if anyone had any expectations coming in," Weiss said. "With all the new guys, we were just going to take it one day, one practice and one game at a time and just try to get better as a group and see where we are. We're not looking to start any parties yet. We've got a look of work ahead of us. We're certainly happy with the way we started, but this is just the tip of the iceberg for us. We've got to keep pushing."

It's hard to walk into that locker room and look those guys in the eye when they've played -- clearly, that was our best game we've played in the series -- and I thought we deserved a better fate tonight.

— Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on his team's 3-2 loss to the Canadiens in Game 3 on Sunday