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Panthers-Sabres Preview @NHLdotcom

In an Eastern Conference playoff race that features six teams separated by six points for the final four spots, every game is critical as the NHL enters the final month of the regular season.

For the Buffalo Sabres, a matchup with the Florida Panthers is even more significant.

The Panthers are one of the teams the 10th-place Sabres are chasing, and Buffalo will look to make a move up the standings Thursday night when the two playoff hopefuls face off at HSBC Arena.

The Sabres (33-27-7) are four points back of eighth-place Florida, but only six behind fifth-place Montreal in a tightly bunched East race.

If Buffalo plans on making the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, though, it'll need to play better than it has in its last two games. The Sabres lost 6-3 at Ottawa on Saturday, then followed that with a 5-2 loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday in a game that was tied at 1 entering the third period.

"We gave ourselves a chance to win in the third period, but we came out not very good," said forward Thomas Vanek, Buffalo's leading goal scorer with 33. "It's disappointing because there are so few games remaining."

The Panthers (34-24-9) couldn't come away with a win at the other end of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, but they did manage to earn a point against Pittsburgh, another team in the mix for one of the final four playoff spots.

The 4-3 shootout loss against the red-hot Penguins wasn't very satisfying, though, considering Florida led 3-1 after two periods.

"It's a big point this time of the year, but we had the opportunity to get two and you get greedy this time of the year," coach Peter DeBoer said.

The Sabres will have plenty of chances to make up ground over the final month of the season. They play five of their final 15 games against the teams in fifth through ninth place in the East, including a pair against the Panthers.

Buffalo should be able to stay in the race as long as its power play continues to produce. The Sabres didn't score in three opportunities with the man advantage against Philadelphia, but are 8-for-17 in their previous four games.

That success has lifted them to third in the East on the power play, as they're converting 22.3 percent of their chances.

Buffalo's already stellar power play should eventually get a boost from Vanek, who's been back for four games since missing nine contests with a broken jaw. He has only one point since returning, but has 16 goals with the man advantage this season - tied for second in the league.

Vanek has 10 goals in 14 career games against the Panthers, scoring on the power play in a 3-2 shootout win Jan. 19 in Florida.

The Panthers have been considerably less successful with the man advantage. They score on the power play 15.7 percent of the time - second-worst in the conference - and have failed to convert in 13 of their last 17 games.

Florida's chances of improving in that category took a hit Saturday, when a skate sliced into a tendon in center Nathan Horton's left ring finger. The team's third-leading scorer with 38 points is expected to miss two-to-four weeks.

That isn't the only bad news. Defenseman Bryan McCabe (33 points), a key member of the Panthers' power-play unit, had surgery on a broken orbital bone in his face over the weekend and is expected to miss Thursday's game before a possible Saturday return.

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