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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers made a giant leap to the top of the standings Sunday.
Aleksander Barkov had a pair of goals as the streaking Panthers earned their sixth straight win to take over the top spot in the Atlantic Division, beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 at BB&T Center.
Aaron Ekblad also scored a goal for the Panthers (20-12-4). Jonathan Huberdeau had two assists. Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck also added helpers.
Brandon Saad and Cam Atkinson scored for Columbus (13-22-3).
Justin Falk, Kevin Connauton, Alexander Wennberg and Ryan Murray had assists.
Roberto Luongo made 15 saves for Florida. Columbus's Curtis McElhinney had 29 saves.
The Panthers started the day one point out of first place in the Atlantic and received help when Ottawa beat Boston 3-1 earlier in the day. The win moved Florida to 44 points, one ahead of Detroit and Montreal, who the Panthers play Tuesday at home.
"It's exciting," said Florida coach Gerard Gallant, whose club has won 12 of their last 15 games. "We're playing the game and we see Boston had lost in the afternoon, so if we would've won tonight knew we could get to first place. It's almost a new year and being in first place means a lot.
"But again we're probably five or six points out of the playoffs."
Florida, then in sixth place and only two points out of last, was 16 points back of first-place Montreal on Nov. 27.
With Florida ahead 1-0 late in the period, Barkov won a faceoff back to Huberdeau inside the period's final minute before Huberdeau skated below the goal line and fed a pass into the low slot. Barkov's shot beat McElhinney on the stick side at 19:42 to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead.
"We had a lot of shots on net and their goalie made a lot of saves on the power play to keep them in the game. The second goal was huge," said Huberdeau, who has a team-high 19 assists.
"Our line has found some chemistry."
Added Ekblad of Huberdeau's pass: "That's a National (Hockey) League pass. That's a great pass."
Ekblad opened the scoring in the first period for Florida after Smith's shot from the left circle rang off the post.
The second-year defenseman gathered the puck at the right circle and flipped in a shot that beat McElhinney at 4:34.
The goal was Ekblad's ninth of the season and his fifth in his last 10 games.
"It landed nice on my stick. I thought it was going to bounce over. That's why I kind of turned to get out, and I just turned and shot it," Ekblad said.
The Panthers outshot Columbus 19-1 in the first period as the Blue Jackets, who lost 5-2 in Tampa Saturday, didn't have an early spark and looked like a team playing the second game of back-to-back contests.
"I have no idea," Columbus coach John Tortorella said of the slow start. "We didn't play a good first period. I'm not going to get into all the words and all that.We had a little push at the end."
Barkov added his second on a give-and-go with Huberdeau after a late Columbus line change in the third period.
Luongo earned his 416th career win by making big saves on Saad in the second period and Dubinsky in the closing minutes on a cross-ice dish from Atkinson.
NOTES: Columbus coach John Tortorella met with media Sunday afternoon and assessed his team's play of late. "It's very frustrating ... I see weakness," he said. "I think we're weak mentally, and it's not the kids. I worry about the kids getting into bad habits by watching other people. That's frightening to me." ... Columbus scratched D Andrew Bodnarchuk and Fs Jared Boll and Nick Foligno; Florida scratched Fs Dave Bolland and Quinton Howden. ... Florida F Nick Bjugstad (upper body) skated again in Sunday's morning skate. Bjugstad, Florida's leading goal-scorer last season, has missed the last 13 games.
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