Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad attempts a shot during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack
January 19, 2016

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Gauging where the Florida Panthers are these days is a tricky proposition.

On one hand, they've lost four straight, getting outscored 16-5 in that stretch and they haven't held the lead for a single second in their last 180 minutes of hockey.

On the other, they're in first place in the Southeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference.

A team that had won a franchise-record 12 consecutive games to become the NHL's feel-good story has immediately followed that up with a four-game losing streak. The Panthers now get a few days off before being thrust against the measuring stick while hosting last year's Stanley Cup finalists - Western Conference-leading Chicago and suddenly surging Tampa Bay - on Friday and Saturday.

In short, here comes another chance for Florida to turn some heads.

''The work ethic is lacking for sure, whether they're tired or whatever it is,'' Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. ''I'm not happy with the way we played the last number of games. Hopefully we get back at it and play our game again. ... We've got to make sure we get ready to play two great teams this weekend.''

Florida's less-than-stellar playoff history is well-chronicled. There's a banner hanging over their home rink to pay tribute to the 1996 Eastern Conference champions, and another for the 2012 Southeast Division title. All the other banners have nothing to do with any on-ice accomplishment, and the franchise still hasn't won a playoff series since making that run to the Stanley Cup final 20 years ago.

This year has been different.

The ageless Jaromir Jagr - he turns 44 in less than a month, but is still an All-Star - and veteran Roberto Luongo have led a largely young team into the playoff-contending mix, and even after Monday's 4-2 loss to Edmonton, the Panthers are 18-6-1 in their last 25 games.

''We know what we're capable of,'' Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad said.

An extended slide, though, would surely bring whispers of here-they-go-again. Being No. 2 in the East with 36 games left doesn't assure anything; the ninth-place team in the East is Pittsburgh, and the Penguins are a mere eight points behind Florida.

So there's still a long way to go.

But the Panthers' locker room - the one with ''No Excuses'' painted in giant block letters on one wall - is far from a happy place these days, even with the knowledge that this slide has come with All-Star defenseman Aaron Ekblad missing all four of the recent losses with an injury.

''We've got to get back on track,'' Florida center Quinton Howden said. ''The streak was fun and it was good, but you've got to be able to regroup and get back at it and we haven't done that yet, so we have to come back better next game.''

Especially when that next game is against the Stanley Cup champions, maybe the truest measuring stick yet for the Panthers.

''We've got to play with some swagger. We know we're a good team in here,'' Howden said. ''These last few games, we've kind of been on a downfall, obviously. It's plain and simple. We've got to be better. That's it.''

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