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Florida Panthers Dec. 5-11

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The Florida Panthers' remarkable start to their 2011-'12 season has caused a welcome responsibility for the National Hockey League squad.

Their continual task, coming on the heels of another stellar road trip, involves facing one tough week of games after another, and this upcoming week is no exception.

Here's the challenge at hand:

Monday, Dec. 5: vs. Washington Capitals

After their most recent "rock star" stretch of four home games in which the 'Cats clawed their way to seven of a possible eight points against Pittsburgh, New Jersey, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay, Florida (14-8-4) returns to the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise with an opportunity to make a statement.

If the Panthers can produce another solid effort not only from its top line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg but also its other lines, as was the case against San Jose on Saturday, Florida will be tough to beat.

Capitals' netminder Tomas Vokoun, who was the Panthers' No. 1 goalie last season, is a major sidelight to this match-up.

Thursday, Dec. 8: at Boston Bruins

This is a "barometer game" for the Panthers. Former Panthers' player Nathan Horton and his Bruins' teammates will be primed and ready for the pesky new kids on the playoff contending block (i.e. Panthers).

The skaters from Sunrise will have to rise to the occasion with another solid effort at both ends of the ice in Beantown. A win here and Florida becomes major news (not that they aren't already) in the National Hockey League.

Friday, Dec. 9: at Buffalo Sabres

Another extremely tough barn for the 'Cats to play in, and part of a back-to-back right after facing the Stanley Cup champions makes it all the more difficult. This one will speak volumes for the character of Kevin Dineen's road warriors.

Sunday, Dec. 11: at New York Rangers

The schedule makers give Florida more fits as they must travel to the newly renovated Madison Square Garden to face, like themselves, a Blueshirts' team that has gotten off to an excellent start this season. It's prime time in the Big Apple, and the Panthers will need to be at the top of their game -- again -- to persevere.

A pivotal week for South Florida's pro hockey team, and one that will go a long way in setting the course for the rest of the 2011-'12 season.

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