SUNRISE, Fla. -- Florida finished with the third-worst record in the NHL last season.
It had to go on an offseason spending/trading binge to get to the salary-cap floor for 2011-12, and ended up with a collection of players who seemed unlikely to contend for anything except the first draft choice next June.
But, with a quarter of the season nearly gone, the Panthers, who the Penguins will face tonight at the BankAtlantic Center, look like a team fully capable of challenging for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Florida is 9-6-3 and tied with Washington for first place in the Southeast Division.
First-year coach Kevin Dineen has taken what looked to be a eclectic assortment of personnel assembled by general manager Dale Tallon and molded it into an exciting, productive squad.
Tallon may have overpaid for some guys, at least in part because the Panthers had to get to the cap floor, but his team has received a nice return on those investments.
Well-traveled veterans like goalie Jose Theodore, defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann have joined with prospects like defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and Florida stalwart Stephen Weiss to make the Panthers one of the league's most pleasant surprises.
"They signed some good players and made the deals they thought they needed to to make themselves successful," Penguins left winger Matt Cooke said. "They're young, they're fast and they're a good team."
And they became one sooner than nearly anyone -- anyone outside the Florida organization, at least -- seemed to believe they could.
"A lot of times, when you have a new coach and a lot of new players, there's a transition period," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "But I've watched them a couple of times, and they've been a pretty fun team to watch. They play with a lot of speed. They kind of play similar to us, really. They hawk pucks really aggressively and they don't sit back at all, like a lot of teams do now. They play an up-tempo game, which is fun to watch. They have a lot of guys who are skilled and have a lot of speed. I think [tonight] will probably be a pretty good matchup."
Penguins center Sidney Crosby (concussion) will sit out his 61st consecutive regular-season game tonight.
Crosby was one of the last players off the ice after practice Friday and was sweating profusely when he got to the locker room, but immediately informed reporters clustered around his stall that his status had not changed and that he would not be doing interviews.
Coach Dan Bylsma confirmed Crosby will not play against the Panthers and reiterated that the team plans to give a day's notice when he is ready to play "to clarify and minimize the speculation" about precisely when he will return.
Although Crosby seems to be close to returning -- bearing in mind that the contents of his medical records are not publicly known -- forward Dustin Jeffrey's comeback seems to have fallen behind schedule.
He had knee surgery last season and made his 2011-12 debut Oct. 20, but has not been in the lineup after dressing for six consecutive games. He recently completed a conditioning stint with the minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, but is not close to rejoining the NHL lineup.
"He's been put on a rehab schedule for the next 10 to 15 days," Bylsma said. "That includes some off-ice and some on-ice [work]."
Bylsma said it is a "safe estimation" that Jeffrey will not play during that period of time, but said Jeffrey's new program was not necessitated by a setback or aggravation of his original problem.
Bylsma doesn't usually confirm the identity of his starting goaltender until after the game-day skate, but it's a better-than-even bet that Brent Johnson will face the Panthers.
Not because of disappointment with Marc-Andre Fleury's performance in the 4-1 loss in Tampa Thursday or because Johnson did anything special in his most recent appearance, a 5-3 loss at Carolina a week ago.
Rather, it's because this is the annual "dads trip," and Bylsma likes to get every healthy player into at least one game on that trip.