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Ekblad gets three points in Panthers' win vs. Sabres

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo finally gave up a goal against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, but it didn't matter.

Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first pick in the 2014 NHL?Draft, had three assists and Nick Bjugstad scored the game-winner with 16.2 seconds left in the second period in the Florida Panthers' 3-2 victory at BB&T???Center.

Ekblad, who entered the game leading all NHL???rookie defensemen with 14 points, set a career high with three points. He has a four-game point streak (two goals, four assists).

"I don't want to get too cocky or anything like that, but pretty happy to be producing and I couldn't be doing that without some help from these guys,"???Ekblad said. "They're making great plays and giving me those opportunities."

Luongo made 26 saves, but his scoreless streak of 214:21 against Buffalo was snapped. Luongo had recorded shutouts in each of his past three games against the Sabres, including a 1-0 victory at Buffalo on Oct. 17.

Brad Boyes and Tomas Kopecky also scored for the Panthers, who are 4-1-1 in their past six and will begin a three-game road trip Monday at the St. Louis Blues.

"At the end of the day, that's what matters (is getting the win),"???Luongo said. "We don't get extra points for shutouts. We got the two points. I thought we played really well as a team; now we've got to focus on a big road trip for us here."

The victory put the Panthers (11-7-7)???four games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2011-12 season when they won the Southeast Division.

Kopecky's goal was his first of the season and snapped a 36-game goal-less drought dating back to last season.

"I'm so happy it's over,"???said Kopecky, whose most-recent goal prior to Saturday was scored Jan. 4, 2014 against the Nashville Predators. "I've just got to play my game. Sometimes it's frustrating that things are not going your way and you're not getting those bounces, but you've got to be patient and stick with it, put your head down and just grind it out."

Drew Stafford, back after missing three games because of a lower-body injury, ended Luongo's shutout bid with a second-period goal. Brian Gionta also scored for the Sabres (9-16-2), who have lost consecutive games after winning six of seven.

The Sabres, who lost 5-0 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, are headed back to Buffalo for a four-game homestand that includes a rematch against the Panthers next Saturday.

"Much better,"???coach Ted Nolan said of the Sabres' effort. "That's the way we have to play. We came up on the short end, but those are the type of games we have to play, hard-fought. We played physically, we made a lot of hits, we had a few chances, we missed them and they capitalized on one of our mistakes on the third goal."

Goalie Michal Neuvirth started for the Sabres and made 34 saves. Neuvirth hadn't played since Nov. 18 when he left a game against the San Jose Sharks in the first period because of a bruised knee.

Florida led 1-0 before the teams combined for four goals in the last 8:58 of the second period.

Stafford tied the score at 11:02 with Buffalo's first goal against Luongo since March 3, 2012. That goal, ironically, was scored by Boyes and got Luongo pulled from the game only 5:10 into the first period after he had given up three goals on seven shots.

Since then, Luongo made 91 consecutive saves against Buffalo.

Stafford scored on a one-timer from the off wing off a beautiful feed from Hodgson, who skated across the ice and hit Stafford with a perfect pass.

"It took a good play from [Wayne] Gretzky to carry the one-timer there,"?????????Luongo joked. "It was a [heck] of a play by them and a [heck] of a shot. I'm sure they were happy to get one by me."

Kopecky gave Florida the lead again at 12:55 when he tipped Ekblad's shot from the point before Gionta also scored on a tip at 15:54.

"I?????????knew he tipped it,"?????????Ekblad said. "I'm not sure how, though, because it was a knuckleball on my end. He got a stick on it somehow and it went in."

According to Elias Sports Bureau, Ekblad became the second rookie defenseman in Panthers history to record three points in a game. He joined Dan Boyle, who had a goal and two assists against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 24, 1999.

"He's such a smart player,"?????????Kopecky said of Ekblad. "It kind of reminds me of (former Detroit Red Wings defenseman)?????????Nick Lidstrom. He's so quick on that blue line. Every shot is getting through. For the guys standing in front of the net, it's so easy when you know that puck is going to arrive. He gets those pucks through. It's not hard, but they'll get there. That's all that matters."

Bjugstad scored the game-winning goal on a rebound after Neuvirth made a nice pad save on Ekblad's one-timer from the slot.

"They had a guy come in late with the shot and we got a little scrambly on the play,"?????????Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. "It was unfortunate I bumped into Neuvirth and they were able to find the puck. We had 20 minutes to come out in the third and get it back and we weren't able to do it."

Boyes opened the scoring at 13:05 of the first period with his first goal in 10 games. After taking a cross-ice pass from Jussi Jokinen, he beat Neuvirth with a wrist shot high to the glove side.

"We needed this one,"?????????Luongo said. "It was the last game before a big road trip, so you always want to end up on a good note. I?????????thought the boys played well tonight, especially in the third period where we kept pushing even though we didn't score. But we carried the play and we didn't give them much."

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