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Panthers must overcome road hazards

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Robert Picarello | correspondent
Oct 27, 2006, 12:00 PM EDT

After winning three of their first five games of the 2006-07 season and losing one in a shootout, the Florida Panthers are making like Stella and trying to get their groove back. Before beating the Rangers 4-2 Wednesday night in New York, the team had dropped four of its last fives games, including its only loss on home ice this season.

"We want to contend in our division and for a spot in the playoffs too. But we need to be better than we are now, that's for sure," 21-year old center Nathan Horton said. "We need to keep getting better and better as the season progresses and hopefully we'll be there in the end."

The 2005-06 Panthers also were hoping to be there in the end too last season, winning 10 of 11 games last March to get back into playoff contention. But the postseason wasn't in the cards for the Cats last year, as the team missed out by seven points. So, the club went out and added some new faces to its lineup.

The Panthers opened up at home against the Boston Bruins on Oct 6 with five players making their debuts in the Sunshine State. Forward Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld all skated in the opener after coming to Florida in a trade over the summer with the Vancouver Canucks for Roberto Luongo, Lucas Krajicek and a sixth round draft choice in the '06 draft. Backliner Ruslan Salei and veteran goalie Ed Belfour, who the Panthers picked up as unrestricted free agents, were also dressed for Game 1 against the Bruins.

These acquisitions not only gave Florida a new look, they also gave the team confidence that it could compete for a playoff spot and a title in the Southeast.

"We have goals and high expectations for this team," said Auld, who sported a 3-4-1 record with a 3.34 GAA in nine appearances. "We believe a lot in this group. I think a big part of our optimism is the new faces, but we have to make sure we find our way. We have to make sure we get our points early; that's so important. All the points mean the same. We believe we can make the playoffs and obviously that's a big goal of ours, but we believe in more than that too.

"There're a lot of expectations, but a lot of that comes from within. Nothing matters if we don't believe it. We've got Cup champions, we've got young players who are on the verge of breaking out, but we have to bring all that together. We have to make sure we bring all the experience, all the youth and all the skill together and come together as a group."

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