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Panthers ride six-game win streak into Atlantic lead

by Brian Compton

Ladies and gentlemen, your first-place Florida Panthers.

The Panthers are atop the Atlantic Division following their 3-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday and will go for their seventh straight win when they host the Montreal Canadiens at BB&T Center on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; RDS, SNE, FS-F). It's the Panthers' longest winning streak in eight years.

Florida, which was in 11th place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 1, has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs once since 2000.

"It's no fluke; for a month and a bit now we've been playing really good hockey," said defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who has five goals in his past 10 games. "We're really learning to carry that momentum and play good defensive hockey, which leads to great offensive chances."

Here are other games that should garner plenty of attention:

Monday, Dec. 28: Washington Capitals at Buffalo Sabres (7 p.m. ET; SNO, SNW, SNP, CSN-DC+, MSG-B) -- Washington is seeking its eighth consecutive victory. The Capitals are 14-1-1 since Nov. 21 and have a 10-point lead in the Metropolitan Division. "I don't think any of us really know we're on a seven-game run," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "We expect a win every night; we try and prepare in a way that gives us the best chance to do that. That's just our mindset. Win streaks really don't matter at all to anyone but media people. Two points is all we're trying to do day in and day out."

Wednesday, Dec. 30: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) -- Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi (knee) and Kevin Klein (strained oblique) practiced Sunday and are primed to return this week. Klein has missed 11 games; Girardi has been out five. Girardi is expected to skate with Ryan McDonagh; Klein, who was arguably the Rangers' most consistent defenseman prior to the injury, would be on the third pairing with Keith Yandle.

Thursday, Dec. 31: Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET; FS-N, FS-MW) -- Six points separate second-place St. Louis and fourth-place Minnesota in the Central Division. Wild forward Zach Parise and goalie Devan Dubnyk were injured at practice Sunday, but coach Mike Yeo told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that neither is expected to miss any time.

Friday, Jan. 1: Montreal Canadiens at Boston Bruins (1 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, SN) -- It's the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. This will be Montreal's first Winter Classic experience; the Bruins defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston.

Sunday, Jan. 3: Dallas Stars at New York Islanders (5 p.m. ET; FS-SW, MSG+) -- Jamie Benn leads the NHL in goals (23), but the Stars are showing they're solid defensively too; Dallas has allowed 15 goals in its past nine games. Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak (upper body) was placed on injured reserve Sunday.


Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres -- The No. 2 pick at the 2015 NHL Draft had two goals and two assists in a 6-3 win at the Boston Bruins on Saturday. Eichel has a three-game point streak and ranks third on the Sabres in scoring with 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in 35 games.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes -- Can Ekman-Larsson improve off the 23-goal season he had in 2014-15? He's up to nine in 34 games this season following his two-goal performance in a 4-3 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday.

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 28
SOG: 96 | +/-: -7
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning -- The star center is heating up. Stamkos scored twice in a 5-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, his second two-goal game in the past three. Stamkos leads Tampa Bay with 16 goals in 36 games.


Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins -- Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan had Crosby and Evgeni Malkin skating on the same line in the third period of a 1-0 loss at the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. The two were joined by Patric Hornqvist. Crosby's three-game point streak (one goal, four assists) ended.

Rob Scuderi, Chicago Blackhawks -- After being traded by the Penguins on Dec. 14, Scuderi, 36, was recently partnered with Michal Rozsival, who is 37. It's certainly not the fastest pairing in the NHL, but the results have been positive.

"[Experience and anticipation] are their strengths," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told the Chicago Sun-Times. "They've been around."

Drew Stafford, Winnipeg Jets -- With center Mark Scheifele out at least a week because of a concussion, Jets coach Paul Maurice shuffled his lines Sunday. Stafford replaced Andrew Ladd on the top line with Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler; Ladd skated with Adam Lowry and Alexander Burmistrov.

"I think that any time you're not winning hockey games, there is going to be some change, and you're trying to find the right recipe for your group and different roles that can help your team win," Ladd said.


After a rough start to the season, Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot has allowed four goals over his past three games. "I felt as good and as confident as I did going into the (Christmas) break, so that's a good sign," Talbot said after he made 22 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. "It's never easy coming off a four-day break, coming off a four-day break without a practice or anything like that. I felt pretty good." … The Calgary Flames extended their home winning streak to 11 games with a 5-3 victory against the Oilers on Sunday. … Sharks forward Logan Couture practiced with his teammates for 20 minutes Sunday, but there is still no timetable for his return. Couture had a procedure done earlier this month after doctors discovered a small arterial bleed in his right thigh. "I was really scared and nervous going into it," Couture told CSN Bay Area. "With a broken leg or shoulder or wrist, you kind of know what's going to happen. When you have internal bleeding in your body, you never know. I was very scared, actually. You never think of what ifs, but it could have been a lot worse if our trainers didn't send me in for the MRI and didn't realize the severity of it."


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