Improved play in December has given the Florida Panthers reason for optimism. Goaltender Ed Belfour has been largely responsible for that.
Belfour and the Panthers hope to match a season-high three-game win streak when they open a three-game road trip against the slumping Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place on Tuesday.
The Panthers haven't won in Edmonton in almost 11 years, going 0-4-1 there since a 3-2 victory on Jan. 5, 1996.
Although it's 14th in the Eastern Conference, Florida (15-19-7) has moved within striking distance of the eighth and final playoff spot with five wins in its last seven games.
The Panthers went 7-5-2 in December after struggling to a 3-7-3 mark in November.
"I was disappointed with our start, but since December, we've competed a lot harder and have been a lot better," Florida coach Jacques Martin said. "We know to get a playoff position, we need to keep wining games, we need to put a streak together.
"We're not going to win every game, but we have to be close."
Belfour was outstanding for the second consecutive game Friday, making 32 saves in a 3-1 victory over visiting Montreal.
"Eddie stole the show, he played great for us," Florida's Chris Gratton said. "He kept us in the game. They had some great chances and he made some big, big saves for us and it allowed us to gain some confidence and move in the other direction."
Belfour, who turns 42 in March, is 5-1-1 in his past seven games, allowing 13 goals in that span. He has surrendered three goals or fewer in nine straight starts.
Also contributing lately for the Panthers has been center Nathan Horton, who has five goals and seven points in his last six games.
Center Stephen Weiss returned to the lineup Friday after missing seven games with a shoulder injury. Weiss has just seven goals, but is tied with Jozef Stumpel for second on the team with five power-play tallies. High-scoring right wing Todd Bertuzzi, though, remains sidelined with a back injury.
A season-high four-game losing streak has dropped the Oilers (18-18-2) into last place in the tight Northwest Division in which all five teams are separated by four points.
"We've got to stay focused," Edmonton's Ryan Smyth said. "We believe we're a good hockey team and once we believe that and start playing with confidence, we'll eventually find a way through it."
Smyth scored both of Edmonton's goals Sunday in 4-2 road loss to provincial rival Calgary, but regretted missing two scoring chances in the first 20 seconds of the game.
"Obviously, I'd love to have that one back and capitalize on the chances like that early on in the game," Smyth said. "Off of that, it gave them a little momentum and they capitalized on the first one and from there the rest is history."
While Smyth has scored three goals in three games after missing most of December with a broken thumb, a pair of teammates are struggling to match last season's production.
Forwards Raffi Torres and Shawn Horcoff, who combined for 49 goals in 2005-06, have managed only 12 this season. Torres has one goal in 10 games, while Horcoff has two in his past 12 contests.