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Florida Panthers in precarious position at midway point

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Not to rain on the Florida Panthers' parade these days, but the plot is thickening to what had been quite a success story in the latter part of 2011.

Don't look now, but the 'Cats are in a very precarious position as they prepare to play their first game of the second half of the National Hockey League season Monday at the BankAtlantic Center against Vancouver.

Florida (20-13-8) suddenly finds itself just three points ahead of much-improved Winnipeg, and only four in front of Washington, in the Southeast Division race.

And with teams piling up points below them as they presently sit in third place in the Eastern Conference, a fall from first place in the division could suddenly plunge the Panthers into the seventh- or eighth-seeded spot and once again in a real dogfight for a playoff spot.

The good news -- albeit concerning based on the quality of the opposition -- is that the next three games are in Sunrise, starting with the Canucks and continuing on Friday versus Pittsburgh. Then the mighty Bruins come to town a week from Monday.

It will take more than solid play from Kris Versteeg (17 goals/21 assists), Thomas Fleischmann (15 goals/19 assists), Stephen Weiss (11 goals/12 assists) and Brian Campbell (3 goals/30 assists) to survive this extremely tough stretch and power ahead.

These are scary times, indeed, for Panthers' fans and a true gut check for a "blue collar" team that will need every bit of that work ethic over the next few weeks.

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