VANCOUVER – After grinding out tough, tight, low-scoring wins for the last two weeks, Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller was happy to see a few pucks go in at the other end early against the Vancouver Canucks.
The Sabres' stopper knew his night still wasn't going to be easy, but it at least made it a little easier.
Buffalo scored three times on seven shots in the first 5:10 to chase Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, relied on Miller to keep them in front during the second period, and hung on to beat the League-leading Canucks 5-3 on Saturday night.
"I was proud of our guys to get the jump there because we made them sit back on their heels the first part of that game and it proved to be the difference," said Miller, who had his two-game shutout streak snapped at 155 minutes and 37 seconds before finishing with 32 saves. "We expected a little push back from these guys … they're almost surgical but we did a nice job battling through."
Miller and the Sabres improved to 6-0-2 in their last eight and moved within two points of Winnipeg for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Doing it against a Canucks team that had only lost once in regulation in their previous 19 games made the win even more special.
"It was an important win for us," Miller said. "We keep having to battle our way back to get close to a chance of making the playoffs and we had a challenge with the Canucks, a powerhouse all year, and I thought we did a great job."
All the attention coming in was on the four players traded during Monday's four-player swap between Buffalo and Vancouver, especially first-round picks Cody Hodgson and Zack Kassian. Instead it was Ville Leino, who lost his second-line center job to Hodgson, scoring 55 seconds in and again at 3:44. Brad Boyes added a third goal 86 seconds later – though play went on for more than two minutes before a review showed the puck went into the net – to end Luongo's night early.
"It was a bad start. I gotta be better than that for my teammates," Luongo said. "The boys battled hard to try and come back, and played a pretty good match, so obviously I'll take responsibility for this one."
Ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff, playing his first game back in Vancouver, scored early in the third period, and that goal became the game-winner when David Booth added his second goal less than a minute later and Zack Kassian, the key player going to Vancouver in Monday's trade, beat Miller with 2:46 left. Tyler Ennis added an empty-net goal to end any thoughts of a Canucks' comeback.
"It was nice to get the goal, maybe get the pressure off my back," said Kassian, who also set up Booth's second goal but was minus-2 during the Sabres' early blitz. "But my mindset coming to the rink was about getting two points, it wasn't about me or Cody coming back, it was about winning the game and we didn't so it's tough."
Miller, who stopped all 82 shots he faced during 2-0 and 1-0 shutouts at Anaheim on Wednesday and San Jose on Thursday, finally had his shutout streak snapped by Booth just as a power play expired with 4:23 left in the second period. The streak ended at 155 minutes and 37 seconds -- just 5:59 shy of the career high he set during late November and early December in 2010.
"It's whatever we need right now," said Miller, who was playing at Rogers Arena for the first time since losing the 2010 Olympic gold-medal game to Luongo. "It was a good run and it proved to be important the first two games of this trip and the guys picked me up tonight and put points up and it was fun to watch."
Cory Schneider made 16 saves in relief for the Canucks, who gave up four goals in regulation for the first time in 20 games, a stretch that saw them go 13-2-5, and move atop the NHL – for now. With the lead down to one point, Detroit and the New York Rangers can both pass them by winning on Sunday.
The Canucks might have overcome the early deficit if not for Miller, who made several great saves At least the hard-working Sabres' stopper – it was his eighth-straight start and 19th consecutive appearance – got some rare breathing room early on.
Leino opened the scoring 55 seconds in with a soft goal, a one-timer from the top of the left circle that went right between his legs. He doubled the lead into a vacated net after a weird play that started with Luongo losing his stick. That left Luongo sprawling awkwardly after Patrick Kaleta's shot was deflected, and he punched the puck right to Leino for an easy one.
It was just his sixth goal of the season for Leino after signing a six-year, $27-million free agent contract last summer.
"It's been a tough season, it hasn't gone my way and it hasn't gone team's way," Leino said. "But there's still a chance to make playoffs and have fun here at the end. These are the games you want to play, when everything counts now."
Boyes was left all alone in the slot to make it 3-0 with a one-timer past Luongo's glove that went in and out of the net so fast only Boyes seemed to know it was in. Play went on for another 2:08, including a breakaway save off Henrik Sedin from Miller, before the next whistle, which provided a chance for a video review confirming Boyes' fifth goal.
"The third one was a perfect shot, gotta give the guy credit, but I gotta be better on the first two," said Luongo, who was pulled after the delay. "There's no excuse for that, I gotta make that (first) save. I'm not quite sure what happened on the second goal, gotta review it, but I gotta make better plays on those two goals."
Ehrhoff restored the three-goal cushion with a point shot that was going wide before hitting Aaron Rome's skate – just his fifth goal and 27th point after scoring 14 and 50 with the Canucks last season to earn a 10-year, $40-million payday – but Booth scored again less than a minute later.
It was the 100th goal of his career, and came on a rebound of a shot by Kassian for his first point in Vancouver. Despite adding the late goal and a game-high seven hits, it was a forgettable start for Kassian and fellow newcomer Marc-Andre Gragnani, who were both minus-2 in the early stretch that pretty much handed the game to their old teammates.
"Two breakdowns cost us and went in back of the net," Kassian said. "And when you go down a few against a star like Miller it's going to be tough to come back."