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Panthers return home, play host to Sabres

by Tal Pinchevsky

SABRES (13-16-4) at PANTHERS (9-19-6)


Last 10: Buffalo 4-4-2; Florida 2-7-1

Season series: This is the third and final meeting between these clubs, which split their previous two matchups, including a 4-3 shootout win for the Sabres on Feb. 28.

Big story: Injuries have played a large role in a difficult Panthers season that looks as if it will end with the team missing the postseason just one year after winning the Southeast Division. Things didn't look much better for the Sabres when they fired coach Lindy Ruff on Feb. 20. But with a 7-6-3 record under interim coach Ron Rolston, Buffalo is back in the playoff hunt.

Team Scope:

Sabres: Since losing their first two games under Rolston, the Sabres appeared to be finding their form, running off three straight wins, including two at the Bell Centre against division rival Montreal. They hoped to carry that momentum into Tampa on Tuesday night when they faced off against the Lightning, with Jon Cooper coaching his first game following the weekend dismissal of Guy Boucher.

In a slow-paced, penalty-filled opening period, the two teams combined for eight shots, with Steven Stamkos getting the only goal, his League-leading 23rd. Tampa Bay dominated the middle period, outshooting the Sabres 16-5 and earning a power-play marker from Martin St. Louis to double the lead. Jordan Leopold halved the Lightning lead with 3:08 remaining in regulation, but Buffalo mustered just 14 total shots in falling 2-1.

Panthers: March hasn't been particularly kind to Florida. The Panthers have seen a number of their top players placed on injured reserve, including goaltender Jose Theodore and forwards Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss. It's contributed to their 3-10-1 record in March entering Thursday's matchup at BB&T Center, their first home game following a season-long five-game road swing that wrapped up Tuesday in Toronto.

Against the Leafs, the Panthers came out firing, outshooting Toronto 16-7 in the opening period and opening the scoring when Tomas Fleischmann's soft shot deflected off Toronto defenseman Mark Fraser's leg and beat James Reimer. Dion Phaneuf tied the game in the middle period before Joffrey Lupul redirected a perfect Tyler Bozak pass past Jacob Markstrom just 22 seconds into the third period. Shawn Matthias replied just 23 seconds later and appeared to give Florida new life, but Lupul earned his second of the night just 2:27 later and Reimer finished the game with 40 saves to backstop the 3-2 Maple Leafs win.

"We looked like different teams in different sections of the game," coach Kevin Dineen said. "We had a fairly strong finish, but not enough to get the job done."

Who's hot: Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff has three points in his past three games while centers Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson both have six points in their past five games. … For the Panthers, Markstrom has allowed one goal or less in three of his past four starts and boasts a .959 save percentage in those games. Fleischmann has four points in his past six games.

Injury report: Thomas Vanek left Tuesday's game with an upper-body injury and his status is uncertain for Thursday. The Sabres' blue line could be thin, with Andrej Sekera (upper body) questionable) and Alex Sulzer (knee) on IR. … The Panthers' infirmary has been a busy place much of the season, with Mike Weaver (lower body), Theodore (groin), Michael Caruso (wrist), Weiss (wrist), Versteeg (knee), George Parros (upper body), Jack Skille (upper body) and Ed Jovanovski (lower body) all on IR, while Sean Bergenheim (hip) is still out with an injury sustained during the lockout.

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