The Washington Times - December 5, 2011, 04:12PM

SUNRISE, Fla. | No matter what happens Monday night, the Washington Capitals can’t be in first place in the Southeast Division. Given the result tumult and how the season has been something of a roller coaster ride, that’s not shocking.

But the Florida Panthers leading the Southeast has come as a major surprise. First-line center Stephen Weiss said it hasn’t been talked about much, but players – especially those who have been around for the losing – can feel a difference.

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It’s definitely more fun coming to the rink when you’re winning games – a little bit looser atmosphere around the room,” Weiss said. “You don’t have that added weight on your shoulders feeling like you’ve got to do all this stuff to get back in the race.”

Tomas Fleischmann knows what winning is like, being a full-time part of three of the Caps’ division title seasons before being traded part of the way through last year. To him, it’s not weird that the Panthers are leading the way while the Caps are on the “other side” chasing.

It may be other side for you guys, but I’m still in first,” Fleischmann said with a wry smile.

Fleischmann is one of the big reasons why the Panthers are in first. He has 12 goals and 15 assists, good for a tie for 10th among all NHL players with 27 points.

He’s just a very gifted player and he’s just a really good guy off the ice. Guys like being around him. He lightens up the room,” said Weiss, who centers Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg (28 points). And his play on the ice speaks for itself – very gifted and talented, sees the ice extremely well, he’s good at both ends. He can play in all situations, he can score. He does it all. It’s been a pleasure to play with him.”

It’s been a pleasure for a lot of Panthers players this whole season, as they’ve coalesced quickly despite a bevy of changes.

You never know 100 percent how it’s going to end up or react,” said defenseman Brian Campbell, whom Florida acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. “The past is the past year and we have a lot of new faces that didn’t experience the past. It’s nice to see guys that have been here for a while that are having fun playing hockey.”

New coach Kevin Dineen’s wide open system has helped, too, as players learned a new system while also learning each other’s names during training camp.

It took a while for us to get it down. He’s very encouraging and positive, so I think it really helps a lot of our players do what they want to do,” defenseman Jason Garrison said of Dineen. “Our skilled guys make skilled plays. It leaves a lot of room for every player on the team [to succeed].”

But the fact that it has worked so well so fast for a Panthers team with a lot of turnover isn’t a surprise to the guys in the locker room.

We’ve embraced the fact that we have a lot of new players,” Garrison said. “I think it’s just a new energy – a lot of new guys, a new energy. The team’s very tight and everybody wants to win for each other.”

They’re not just winning for each other – they’re doing so a lot.

Said Caps coach Dale Hunter: “The points they got in the standings, it’s well-deserved.”