Jason Brough

Derek MacKenzie, Erik Gudbranson, Roberto Luongo
AP

Luongo: Panthers have ‘come a long way in the last year’

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Usually around this time, the Florida Panthers are more than 10 points out of first place and languishing somewhere toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference with playoff hopes already in jeopardy.

Not this season.

The Panthers are going into New Year’s Day as a first-place team for just the third time in franchise history, their seven-game winning streak pushing them atop the Atlantic Division. No one is ordering banners yet, but it’s a sign of major progress for a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 and has been to the postseason just once in the last 14 seasons.

Florida awoke on Jan. 1, 2000 in first, did the same to start 2012 and now will do it again in 2016.

“It’s just fun,” Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo said. “When I came back here, obviously it was to try to take this team to the next level. I’m not saying it’s because of me, but there’s a lot of skill in this room that’s come a long way in the last year. We want to make the playoffs, we want to try to make a run and right now we’re putting some points in the bank.”

Florida went 11-3 in December, the second-best record of any team in the NHL during the final month of 2015. Only Washington was better, and the Panthers’ .786 December winning percentage was the third-best month in the history of the franchise – topped only by what they did in October 1996 (8-0-4, .833) and November 1995 (10-2-1, .808).

The hold on first is tenuous at best, and a playoff spot is far from secured. But the Panthers are no longer hockey’s pushovers.

“We’re not lying to anybody,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said.

Gallant took over before the start of last season, inheriting a team that finished with only 66 points the year before. In Gallant’s first season, the Panthers got to 91 points and were in the playoff chase until the season’s final days.

The momentum has carried over, and then some.

“To be honest with you, when I got the job I was pretty excited because I’d seen the young talent,” Gallant said. “I didn’t know how good they all were going to be, but I knew (Jonathan) Huberdeau, I knew (Sasha) Barkov, I knew (Erik) Gudbranson, all those guys. So I knew that if I could get by the first year or so, and we made some strides, things could take off.”

The young guys have done their part.

So, of course, has the NHL’s oldest player.

At 43, Jaromir Jagr leads the Panthers in scoring. He’s scored in nine games; the Panthers are 7-1-1 in those. Teammates rave about his work ethic, and the line he’s on with Huberdeau and Barkov is one of the NHL’s best.

“The thing is, no matter how talented the guys you get are or how much you tell yourself that you should win, it doesn’t work like that,” Jagr said. “You have to experience that. You have to go through it. You have to learn how to win. It’s no accident that Chicago won three Cups in six years. They learned how to win and they believe in their game. They believe in their identity. We’ve had to build our identity.”

The Panthers lost 12 out of 17 games – getting 14 of a possible 34 standings points – during one stretch earlier this season, and were looking up at the pack in the East playoff chase. They’re 13-3 since, with 26 of a possible 32 standings points.

Fans are noticing. Holiday-time home games against Montreal and the New York Rangers have always drawn well, but there seems to be a few more Panthers fans in the team’s arena than usual. And the team’s projections suggest that ticket numbers will be solid, at least, for the rest of the season.

“It’s a long season,” Luongo said. “Things can change quickly. Every game is hard work, and we have that mentality. When you have that mentality coming into every game, you can be good.”

Related: Luongo says Panthers cannot accept anything ‘beneath’ playoffs

After second loss of World Juniors, Canadians call themselves ‘major underdogs’ against host Finns

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 4:  Joe Hicketts #2 of Team Canada skates with the puck against Team Slovakia during a semi-final game at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship at the Air Canada Centre on January 4, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Team Canada defeated Team Slovakia 5-1 to advance to the gold medal final. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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The defending gold-medalists from Canada lost their second game in group play today at the 2016 World Juniors in Finland, falling 5-2 to Sweden.

It marked the first time the Canadians had dropped two group games since 1998. That was the year they had their worst finish ever at the tournament — eighth out of 10 — losing in shocking fashion to Kazakhstan in the seventh-place contest.

Canada, which entered this year’s tournament as the bookmaker’s favorite, will face host Finland in the quarterfinals on Saturday.

The Finns won three times and lost once (to Russia) in the group stage.

“We’re major underdogs,” Canadian defenseman Joe Hicketts told reporters. “We come in and Finland is one of the top teams in the tournament.”

JuniorsBracket

Mike Condon won’t be in the ‘last row of the nose bleeds’ tomorrow

FOXBOROUGH — Mike Condon is a big New England Patriots fan. He’s even got a special mask that pays homage to Bill Belichick.

But Friday he’ll be trying to win one for the visitors at the home of his favorite NFL team.

“Usually when I’m at Gillette Stadium, I’m in the last row of the nose bleeds,” Condon said today.

Tomorrow, the 25-year-old Massachusetts native will be center stage, the starting goalie for the Montreal Canadiens in the Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins.

His family will be there. So will a bunch of his friends. His dad, a sergeant in the Massachussets State Police, even led the Canadiens’ escort to the stadium today.

How has Condon been dealing with all the potential distractions?

“It’s just basically laying low,” he said. “Not doing too much, not going out, not looking at your phone too much. Just trying to be as normal as possible and just concentrating on your work every day and taking care of what you can.”

It’s been a challenging month for Condon, who’s been forced into a starting role after the injury to Carey Price. The undrafted former Princeton Tiger has been between the pipes for a lot of losses, and his .888 save percentage during the month has been one of the contributing factors in the Habs’ precipitous fall in the standings.

He played well in his last outing, though, making 36 saves in a 4-3 shootout win in Tampa Bay on Monday. He was named the game’s first star. That helped him get the Winter Classic assignment over the recently acquired Ben Scrivens.

“It’s an honor for me to go out there,” said Condon. “And just at the end of the day, it’s another game, another two points.”

But, of course, it’s not just “another game.” The Canadiens are looking at Friday as a potential turning point.

“Yeah, it could change a lot,” said captain Max Pacioretty. “I think if we can pull out a good game tomorrow and get the victory, I think it could be a good jump start for things to come.”

On top of that, there’s the experience of playing in a Winter Classic.

“Playing on a stage like this is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” said defenseman P.K. Subban. “So really enjoy it, take it in, drink it in. We want to get the win and the two points. But enjoy the experience because it is just that, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Video: Canucks’ Hansen fined for diving

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Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen is the latest player to be fined for diving.

According to the NHL, Hansen was first issued a warning for an incident in a game against Pittsburgh on Nov. 4.

Then, on Dec. 22 at Tampa Bay, he received a minor penalty for embellishment after he was interfered with by Lightning defenseman Nikita Nesterov.

Hansen’s fine was $2,000.

If he gets fined again, it’ll be $3,000.

Outdoor conditions could mean a Winter Classic ‘chess match’

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FOXBOROUGH — The sun was shining as the Boston Bruins practiced this morning at Gillette Stadium.

And the glare was glaring.

“You notice it big time,” said Bruins defenseman Torey Krug. “Even when we were scrimmaging a bit, you make a quick move in the corner, you’re turning, you’re trying to find bodies, you’ve got to take a second to adjust. It’s tough to track the puck in the corners a bit, but both teams have to play with it.”

The glare may be less of a factor once Friday’s Winter Classic against the Montreal Canadiens gets going. The B’s practiced today at 11 a.m. Tomorrow’s game won’t start until after 1 p.m., at which point the stadium will start casting its shadow over the ice surface. There may be some cloud cover, too.

Still, Krug expects the conditions — whether it’s sun or wind or whatever tomorrow may bring — to be a factor.

“The conditions change the way you have to approach the game,” he said. “Our team really benefits from a simple style of game anyway. We try to do that regardless of what venue we’re in, but you really have to simplify. That’s taking care of the puck. It’s almost like a chess match, waiting for someone else to make a mistake, and then you have to jump on that opportunity and take advantage when it happens.”

As for the ice, Krug said it “held up pretty well,” though it was “a little bit slow” and “sticky.”

The latest forecast for Friday afternoon is a mix of sun and cloud.

The more cloud the better.