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Playing better, not division lead, is Panthers' concern

by Alain Poupart
SUNRISE, Fla. -- For the first time in almost two months, the Florida Panthers woke up Monday morning to find themselves out of first place in the Southeast Division.

Their run of 57 consecutive days at the top of the division ended on Sunday when the Washington Capitals beat Carolina 2-1 to match Florida's 50 points and take over first by virtue of their 24 victories to the Panthers' 21.

"Obviously, you're aware of what's going on around the League, but more importantly is you take care of the areas that you've got to strengthen and you keep on encouraging what our strengths are as a team and keep emphasizing those," coach Kevin Dineen said.

After a 3-2 overtime victory over Carolina on Dec. 18, the Panthers found themselves nine points ahead of the Capitals, winners of the division the last four seasons.

But Florida has won only three times in its last 10 games (3-5-2), while Washington is on a run of seven victories in nine games.

Kris Versteeg, who scored the game-winner in that Dec. 18 victory, says the Panthers are more concerned about regaining their earlier form than who's where in the standings.

"I don't think you think about that at all," he said. "They've had games in hand on us all season. We've always talked about it. It's hard to get on top and it's harder to stay. We're still learning that here."

With Washington idle before wrapping up a four-game homestand Tuesday with a game against the New York Islanders, the Panthers can quickly regain first place in the Southeast.

But to do so, they'll have to beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Monday night.

The Panthers are hoping the impending return of goalie Jose Theodore and four injured forwards -- Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Marco Sturm and Jack Skille -- can get them back in the right direction.

Florida has gone a month without winning two in a row, and Versteeg knows that's not the way to get into the playoffs -- something the Panthers haven't done since the 1999-2000 season.

"We want to be better than we have as of late," Versteeg said, "but with the healthy bodies we're getting back a lot of things start to change and I think we're starting to get accustomed to that, too, and get used to the guys coming back.

"The last few games, you win one, you lose one, you win one, you lose one; we can't be a .500 team and expect to make the playoffs. We've got to find a way to string a few here together and be a little more consistent in our winning streaks."
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