HOCKEY — Anyone looked at the NHL standings today? The first-year Florida Panthers are in third place in the Atlantic Division. Their 52 points is 11th best in the 26-team NHL. "There aren't any rules saying an expansion team has to lose," said Panthers general manager Bob Clarke from Buffalo, N.Y., where his team beat the Sabres, 3-2, Sunday night. "Normally, they do lose. But our guys haven't believed that, haven't believed it from the start. They've kept the goals-against down, and they've been in every game, win or lose." The Panthers are 21-17-10. Their goals-against average is 2.65. In the entire NHL, only the New York Rangers' 2.59 is better. Tonight, in Pittsburgh, they put their expansion-team-record nine-game unbeaten streak (5-0-4) on the line against the Penguins. The Panthers have goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who may be the NHL's most valuable player this season. They also have a group of NHL castoffs who can see the results of hard checking and team play. "I don't know how far we can go," said Clarke. "I don't know if we can make the playoffs. Washington and Philadelphia are only a couple points behind, and for us to think they're going to continue to be less than effective would not be smart. "But we're a good team. I don't think we're winning just because our goalie is playing well. The guys in front of him are playing well. "I think we're winning because our guys have pride and want to win." But Clarke has been smart. His team has used tight checking to stay in games. But it was still losing a number of them by a goal. So, last month, Clarke made a trade with Ottawa and got All-Star right wing Bob Kudelski, a goal-scorer, who leads the team in scoring with 30 goals and 19 assists. "We didn't do it just to make the playoffs," Clarke said. "We did it because teams in our position don't have many opportunities to get that type of goal scorer. He is going to be with us this year and the year after and the year after that. "But already he has been good for our team. He gives us another dimension. He scores goals and he checks good, too." The Panthers are sixth in a 14-team conference where eight will make the Stanley Cup playoffs. In name only New Jersey's Martin Brodeur may be a rookie, but he isn't playing like one. Brodeur, 15-5-4 with a 2.56 goals-against average, has taken advantage of every opening this season to work his way into a share of the No. 1 goaltending position. "We don't have a No. 1 or a No. 2," said Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. "But when Martin plays, he's been playing well." Brodeur got his chance when six-year NHL veteran goalie Peter Sidorkiewicz was injured before the season started. He now alternates with Chris Terreri (12-8-2, 2.86 GAA) in the Devils net. Between them, they've anchored an unmatched performance by New Jersey. The Devils have produced the best record in team history to this point (27-16-6) and are in second place in the Eastern Conference. Lamoriello insists it isn't as if Brodeur appeared out of the blue. "He's 20 years old, he's been in our farm system and he has always been projected as a good goalie," he said. Still, even Lamoriello has to ad mit, without the rookie, the Devils wouldn't be where they are. "Martin's play wasn't something that was expected," Lamoriello said. "But if you don't get a couple of players like that, players who step up, then you're not making progress." Scary cut Winnipeg Jets star Teemu Selanne returned home from the hospital over the weekend after surgery on his Achilles' tendon. He will be out at least eight to 10 weeks. The surgery was necessary because with 11 minutes left in the second period of the Jets game in Anaheim last Wednesday, his tendon was 75 percent severed. It happened when Selanne went up on the boards to check Don McSween, and the razor-sharp blade of McSween's skate came down the back of Selanne's leg and sliced through the tendon. "Teemu never laces his skates all the way to the top," said Winnipeg spokesman Mike O'Hearn. "The top of the skate is always loose around the top of his ankle and it simply pulled away from his leg as the blade came down." O'Hearn said Selanne has no intention of changing his lacing habits, but that's no reason why young skaters shouldn't learn from the accident and develop good habits. "Teemu is expected to return without problem," said O'Hearn. "But the doctor did say that because of the way he skates, putting so much pressure on that tendon, there is a five percent chance of a recurrence, of it pulling apart." Portland needs a rally The Portland Pirates (formerly the Baltimore Skipjacks) have fallen into second place in the American Hockey League's Northern Division, after a pair of one-goal losses last weekend. The Pirates fell to Adirondack, 4-3, and to Binghamton, 3-2. It's the first time the team has lost back-to-back games. Portland has a home game with Cornwall tomorrow before a three-games-in-three-days weekend trip. Pirates goalie Olie Kolzig had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Saturday morning and will be out at least two weeks. Around the rinks New York Islanders All-Star forward Pierre Turgeon, who suffered a separated shoulder on a late hit by Washington center Dale Hunter during last spring's playoffs, is on the sidelines again. He will miss from 10 days to two weeks after suffering a fractured cheekbone last Wednesday during pre-game warm-ups, when a puck smashed into his face. There were rumors that Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, who has been rehabing his back for the last two months, would return to the ice tonight, but the Penguins public relations office said late yesterday he will not.