Many inside the game look at the Eastern Conference right now as the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning being the only two true Stanley Cup Contenders with a side dish of the Florida Panthers — a dark horse team with the pieces in place, not to mention cap space and assets ahead of the trade deadline, that could emerge as a Stanley Cup team. —

For about the first 54 minutes of their matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday night, the Panthers sure looked the part.

They controlled the play, out-shooting Pittsburgh 34-18 through the first forty minutes and you could see why they’re a team many have been buzzing about.

Florida obviously has the goaltender in place with Roberto Luongo. The blueline is deep and fast, the forward group has a very good mix of two-way players with speed. It’s just a deep team in all three phases. Players like Shawn Thornton might no longer fit in today’s NHL, but the Panthers have a group of fourth liners who are built for the playoffs.

Florida’s 4th line dominated possession against the Penguins. Thornton on the ice for 9 shot attempts for, 3 against at even strength. Derek MacKenzie 10 shot attempts for, 3 against. The line had lots of zone time against the Penguins second best defenseman Brian Dumoulin, 6 SAF, 0 SAA head to head vs Dumoulin.

What stood out most about the Panthers was how they defended the Penguins through the neutral zone. Pittsburgh’s new aggressive approach and playing with more speed and pace has seen teams struggle in defending Pittsburgh through the neutral zone. Florida constantly gave the Penguins little time and space by the standing the Penguins up in the middle of the neutral zone. They took away time and space and limited the Penguin attacking the offensive zone with speed.

The Panthers looked the part as a darkhorse in the Eastern Conference that many see them as and did everything right except put the Penguins away, which is a problem for opposing teams with the level Sidney Crosby is playing at.

Crosby and Kris Letang not only willed the Penguins to a thrilling 3-2 overtime win, the Penguins stars are leading by example and that’s what has to happen and continue from here on out.

“Those two guys I thought put the team on their back,” said Mike Sullivan. “They raised their level at a critical time.”

Letang who had 2 goals and an assist, scoring the overtime winner moments after drawing a penalty seconds into overtime now has 34 points in his last 30 games.

Crosby’s play in the final minutes of regulation and into overtime was something else.

On Letang’s goal with 5:04 left in the third to cut the Panthers lead to one, Crosby was masterful on the wall, protecting the puck in bouncing off a defender and setting Letang up for the one-timer goal.

Crosby won 23 of 38 faceoffs in the win and none were bigger than the Penguins 6-on-5 offensive zone draw win over Derek MacKenzie out of the Penguins timeout with a 1:21 left in the game that led to Crosby’s game tying goal.

When things are going well puck luck is on your side and that is also following Crosby these days. On the faceoff from the right circle, MacKenzie wins the puck back but Chris Kunitz does a great job of getting to the puck first, gets it up to the point and Crosby goes to the net uncovered and the puck bounces off him and into the net to tie the game.

Improbable comeback? According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Penguins won a game in which they trailed 2-0 in the final 6:00 of regulation for the first time in franchise history.

The level Crosby is at right now is the best we’ve seen him since the lockout shortened season, (prior to breaking his jaw) when he was averaging 1.56 points per game.