Lately, however, little has come easy for the Southeast Division leaders.
More often than not, Florida finds its way into the win column.
Sunday was another grind-it-out affairs as the Panthers were listless in the second and trailed going into the third. A game-tying goal from Jason Garrison led to a overtime winner from Kris Versteeg as the Panthers topped Carolina 3-2 at BankAtlantic Center.
The Panthers now lead second place Winnipeg by eight points after playing in their 12th straight one-goal home game. Aside from a 6-1 whitewash in New York last Sunday, nine of the past 10 games have been decided by two goals or fewer.
“I have a bunch of guys who find a way. Sometimes it's not a thing of beauty, but we're finding those two points,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “Dale Tallon brought in quality guys who know how to win. There were a lot of question marks about our team early. I think our guys take pride in where we're at, under the radar or whatever, but we're taking pride in games are a lot harder now. Nothing comes easy for this team.''
Florida opened the scoring when Sean Bergenheim followed his own shot off the back boards and beat Cam Ward on the rebound for his third straight goal.
Bergenheim didn't get the fourth, however, leaving the game early in the second with a groin injury. He could miss some time, something the banged-up Panthers don't need right now.
Carolina matched Bergenheim's goal with 1:22 left in the first as Tim Gleason got his first of the season by firing a shot from 55 feet out. The puck deflected off Florida defenseman Brian Campbell and slipped between Jose Theodore's skates.
The Panthers did not sell alcohol in much of the arena on Sunday as part of a sponsorship deal. With the way the team played in the second, that allowed fans to partake in the coffee being sold instead. The Panthers, however, looked like they needed something stronger than java as they were outshot 10-2 in the second frame as Carolina took a 2-1 lead.
The Panthers “were skating in mud,'' in the second said Dineen, with Carolina taking its first – and only lead – when Chad LaRose stole the puck deep in the Florida zone and quickly turned a fired high to beat Theodore (24 saves).
Florida rebounded nicely in the third. With former Panthers defenseman Bryan Allen in the penalty box, Garrison whipped a shot from 60 feet out. Cam Ward stopped the shot, only it trickled behind him and into the net. Florida had a great chance late when Tomas Kopecky hit the post and Tomas Fleischmann's rebound shot ended up in Ward's glove.
“The second wasn't our best 20 minutes, but we know what we need to do and came out in the third and put together a good game,'' Garrison said. “Our forwards did a great job getting the puck deep, we forechecked. We don't like being in that position, but we've come back before. We have a lot of firepower, a lot of skill. We find a way.''
The Panthers had more chances in overtime, with Shawn Matthias being stopped after breaking free with the puck at center ice.
Not long afterward, Campbell got the puck deep and worked around in front of the net with Versteeg picking it up and depositing it into the net with 1:52 left in overtime.
As the Panthers are finding out, being in first brings a target they aren't used to. So far this year, most teams are saving their starting goalies for the Panthers.
Carolina, in last in the division, had lost six straight in regulation during a time in which coach Paul Maurice was fired and former Panthers center Kirk Muller was hired. The Hurricanes, despite missing young winger Jeff Skinner, have points in four of their past five.
“That's a tough team to play against,'' Versteeg said. “They are rolling four lines and really come after you. It's a difficult team to play against but we found a way again.''