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Northeast-leading Sabres face off with fading Panthers

by John McGourty
SABRES (37-22-10) at PANTHERS (28-30-11)

Last 10 -- Buffalo 5-4-1; Florida 4-4-2

Season series --
This is the third of four meetings between the teams and each team has won in the other's building. The final game of the series is March 31 in Buffalo. Three Sabres scored early in the first period on Oct. 21 in Sunrise, chasing Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen in less than two minutes. Ryan Miller made 41 saves in the 5-2 victory. Six Panthers scored on Nov. 18 in Buffalo and Tomas Vokoun made 26 saves in a 6-2 win.

Big story --
Buffalo has led the Northeast Division for most of the season and has opened a five-point advantage over the Ottawa Senators, who have gone into a tailspin after gaining the division lead before the Olympic break. The Sabres are getting it done with defense and goaltending. Leading point producer Tim Connolly is tied for 28th with 62 points and leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek ranks 39th with 23 goals. But Miller, a leading Hart Trophy candidate, is first in the NHL with a .929 save percentage and second with a 2.21 goals-against average. Only five teams permit fewer goals per game than Buffalo, 2.46. The Panthers are 12th in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of eighth place with 13 games to play.

Team Scope:

Sabres --
The Sabres beat the Lightning in every way Thursday, scoring full-strength, power-play, shorthanded and empty-net goals. Miller didn't let Tampa Bay score until the game was out of reach, Jason Pominville had a hat trick and Craig Rivet beat up tough guy Todd Fedoruk. Buffalo had a 14-4 shots advantage after the first period. The game followed team meetings Wednesday and Thursday. Coach Lindy Ruff said his players got the message, overcoming their recent slow starts to beat the Lightning early and often with their second-highest goal total of the season.

Panthers --
With the return of Nathan Horton on Thursday against Phoenix, the Panthers were able to skate their first line of Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Horton for the first time since October. The trio led the Panthers to a 3-0 lead but then the team faltered and lost, 4-3, in a shootout. Few NHL players have played better than Vokoun this season but he let in a 105-foot slap shot with a minute left to doom his team Thursday night.

Who's hot --
Pominville has eight points in four games for Buffalo. Derek Roy has four points in two games. Connolly has four points in three games. Rookie Tyler Myers has six points in five games. Miller has been hot all season and is 5-1-1 in his last seven games. … Bryan McCabe has 10 points in seven games. Radek Dvorak has three points in three games. Gregory Campbell has three points in three games.

Injury report --
Florida's Byron Bitz has missed four games with a lower-body injury. … Buffalo's Drew Stafford is sidelined indefinitely with a groin injury.

Stat pack --
Buffalo's newly-acquired forward Raffi Torres is 12th in the NHL in shooting percentage, scoring on 19 of 109 shots, or 17.4 percent. Weiss leads Florida with 16.4 percent accuracy, or 16.4 percent.

Puck Drop --
"You see one of those [goals] in a season in the NHL, in all the games. It is what it is. For us, it seems like it's Murphy's Law -- whatever can go wrong does," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, lamenting Radim Vrbata's fluke goal that tied Thursday's game in regulation and led to the loss.

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