Behind the play of 41-year-old goaltender Ed Belfour, the Florida Panthers are on their longest winning streak of the season. The next two games could go a long way toward determining how much they have improved.
Belfour will try to extend the Panthers' hot streak when they meet the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes at BankAtlantic Arena in the start of a home-and-home series.
The Panthers have won three straight home meetings with Carolina, and are 8-1-1 with a tie at home against the Hurricanes since the start of the 2002-03 season.
Florida's three-game overall winning streak is its longest since a seven-game run from March 17-29, but three of those wins came in shootouts. The Panthers (13-18-6) have not won four straight in regulation since Feb. 10-19, 2001.
The current run continued when Florida rallied for a 3-2 win over the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers on Thursday. After Chris Gratton and Nathan Horton scored 21 seconds apart early in the third period to erase a two-goal deficit, Rostislav Olesz broke the tie with 8:50 to play.
Belfour stopped all 13 shots he faced in the final period and finished with 30 saves as Florida improved to 5-4-1 in December.
"A lot of our games in December could easily have been victories," Florida coach Jacques Martin said. "Our play has picked up and we need to get results now."
The recent surge by Martin's team also has tightened the Southeast Division standings. Atlanta leads the division with 46 points, but only eight points separate second-place Carolina (17-14-4) from Florida, currently in fifth with 32 points - just two behind in-state rival Tampa Bay.
In their only meeting so far this season, the Panthers got two goals and two assists from Olli Jokinen in a 6-3 home win over the Hurricanes on Oct. 11. Belfour did not play in that game, but is 11-7 with two ties, a 2.25 goals-against average and two career shutouts against the Hurricanes franchise.
The Panthers have given up power-play goals in five of their last six games, and will be facing a team that has rediscovered its touch with the man advantage.
Carolina tied a season high with its third straight win Friday, scoring four power-play goals in a 5-1 rout of the New York Islanders. Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams scored with the extra man in the first period and Eric Belanger and Scott Walker also scored on the power play.
"It's a strange power play. Some nights, you're not doing anything different - the puck just took the bounces," Brind'Amour said. "We had a few rebounds go in, and things happened that hadn't happened in other games. ... We get a few of those, and the game's over right there."
Like Florida, the Hurricanes have a goaltender playing well. Cam Ward carried a shutout into the third period, and finished with 24 saves in the win over New York. Ward has won his last three starts, allowing just four goals over that stretch. He has never faced the Panthers.
The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C.