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Panthers move into first with win against Blue Jackets

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The Florida Panthers moved into first place in the Atlantic Division by holding off the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 at BBT& Center on Sunday for their sixth consecutive victory.

The Panthers (20-12-4) are one point ahead of the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens, and two in front of the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators. The winning streak is the longest since 2008 for Florida, which has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs once since 2000.

"It's almost the new year, and being in first place means a lot," coach Gerard Gallant said in video posted on the Panthers website. "Keep winning, keep getting points; it's a lot of fun playing the way we're playing."

Aleksander Barkov scored twice, each on an assist by Jonathan Huberdeau, defenseman Aaron Ekblad had a goal and Roberto Luongo made 16 saves for Florida, which is 12-3-0 in its past 15 games. The Panthers won despite going 0-for-6 on the power play and failing to capitalize on two 5-on-3 advantages.

"We know we're a good team," Huberdeau told Fox Sports Florida. "We're on top now. We have to stay there."

Brandon Saad and Cam Atkinson scored for Columbus (13-22-3), and Curtis McElhinney made 29 saves, 17 of them in the first period.

"We didn't play a good first, but we found a way to get our legs underneath us and generate some offense," coach John Tortorella told the Blue Jackets website. "I thought we played quicker [after the first period] and it started with our gaps in the neutral zone, it helped us turn some pucks over. But it's not enough."

The Panthers dominated the first period from the opening faceoff and took the lead at 3:34. Reilly Smith hit the post with a wrist shot from the left circle, but the puck came right to Ekblad, whose wrist shot from the top of the right circle went past a screened McElhinney. It was the ninth goal of the season and fifth in 10 games for Ekblad, the Calder Trophy winner last season.

The Blue Jackets didn't get their first shot on goal until 10:07 into the game, when Boone Jenner's wrist shot forced Luongo to make his only save of the period. McElhinney kept the margin at one goal later in the period by making seven saves during a 1:38 span in which the Panthers had a 5-on-3 power play.

But the Panthers doubled their lead with 17.7 seconds left. Barkov won an offensive-zone draw to Huberdeau, who cut down the right side and slipped a pass to Barkov in the slot for a wrist shot that beat McElhinney cleanly. It capped a period in which Florida had a 19-1 advantage in shots on goal and a 30-3 lead in shot attempts.

"That was probably our best period of the season," Barkov said. "We had a lot of great chances. We only got a couple of goals. We could have had six or seven."

The Blue Jackets came out for the second period with much more energy and cut the margin to 2-1 at 7:59 on Saad's 13th goal of the season. Saad raced into the Florida zone to chase down Justin Falk's dump-in to the left-wing corner, controlled the puck and wheeled a shot from along the goal line that found its way past Luongo.

Saad had a chance to tie the game near the midway point of the period, but Luongo stopped him at the left post after a defensive breakdown.

Barkov restored Florida's two-goal margin at 7:23 of the third period when he finished off a feed by Huberdeau on a 2-on-1 break for his ninth of the season.

"With [Huberdeau], you just need to go to the net and keep your stick on the ice," Barkov said.

Barkov's goal proved to be the game-winner when Atkinson scored a power-play goal with 8:34 remaining.

It was another frustrating loss for Columbus, which is last in the Eastern Conference.

"In the second period, we started taking over a little bit and generating some chances," Atkinson said. "Those last 10 minutes, that's the way we should have played since the start of the game. You can't take a period off or a shift off, and we have to look ourselves in the mirror. It's the guys in the room who are going to turn this thing around."

The Panthers continue their six-game homestand against the Canadiens on Tuesday, the same night the Blue Jackets host the Dallas Stars.

Ekblad said the Panthers are confident they can keep their roll going.

"It's no fluke; for a month and a bit now we've been playing really good hockey," he said. "We're really learning to carry that momentum and play good defensive hockey, which leads to great offensive chances."

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