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Panthers seek conference lead as they face Sabres

by Brian Hunter
PANTHERS (16-8-4) at SABRES (14-11-2)


Last 10:
Florida 7-2-1; Buffalo 3-5-2

Season series: Third of four meetings. Each team has already won in its opponent's building. Thomas Vanek scored twice and Ryan Miller stopped all 22 shots he faced as the Sabres took a 3-0 victory in Florida on Oct. 20. Nine days later, the Panthers got revenge in Buffalo by a 3-2 final, as Jason Garrison scored a power-play goal with 1:43 left in regulation.

Big story:
Both teams have gained more points on the road than at home this season, but the disparity is particularly glaring in Buffalo's case because Friday's game will mark its 17th at the First Niagara Center (where its record is 6-8-2 so far) as opposed to just 11 on the road (8-3-0). In other words, to remain a playoff contender the Sabres need to either pick up their play in front of the home fans or maintain something close to the .727 winning percentage they've posted in hostile environments.

Team Scope:

Don't look now, but Florida is poised to take over the Eastern Conference lead if it wins Friday. The Panthers kept rolling with an impressive victory on the road against the defending Stanley Cup champions on Thursday, blanking the Bruins 2-0 behind a flawless performance by Jose Theodore. He made a season-high 40 saves and outdueled Tim Thomas thanks to a pair of late third-period goals by Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg. Florida moved a point ahead of Northeast Division-leading Boston and within a point of Atlantic-leading Philadelphia.

"When it's a tie game on the road after two periods, you know you're sitting pretty good," Theodore said. "It was just about making that next save. The guys came through scoring big goals, came through on the PK. And it's a team effort tonight."

Sabres: Goals near the end of a period are supposed to demoralize the opposition, and it looked like Buffalo had accomplished that Wednesday as Zack Kassian scored at 18:55 of the first and Vanek followed at 19:37 to extend a 1-0 lead to 3-0 over Philadelphia. But Maxime Talbot of the Flyers did the Sabres one better by scoring with a second left before intermission, and it sparked a four-goal rally by the visitors. Drew Stafford scored with 1:35 remaining in the third to earn the Sabres a point, but they fell 5-4 in overtime on a Claude Giroux breakaway goal that came after a no-look pass by Marc-Andre Gragnani was intercepted.

"It hurts because you get back into it, the boys are ready to go and we pretty much give it to them there with one of the best players in the League in overtime," Stafford said in the Buffalo News. "It's disappointing."

Who's hot:
Theodore is 5-1-1 in his last seven starts for the Panthers, allowing two goals or less in all but one of those outings. Dmitry Kulikov (2-3-5) and Tomas Fleischmann (1-4-5) have three-game points streaks active. … Kassian, the Sabres' first-round pick in 2009, has goals in consecutive games. He has 3 goals and 5 points in six games since being called up.

Injury report:
Florida forward Mark Cullen is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Forwards Scottie Upshall (upper body), Matt Bradley (upper body) and Marcel Goc (concussion-like symptoms) are on injured reserve. … Buffalo forward Nathan Gerbe left Wednesday's game with what was termed an upper-body injury, and is day-to-day. Forward Paul Gaustad (upper body) missed his first game of the season, while forwards Cody McCormick (concussion) and Patrick Kaleta (groin) and defenseman Jordan Leopold (upper body) were also sidelined. Forward Brad Boyes (knee) and defensemen Tyler Myers (wrist) and Mike Weber (upper body) are on injured reserve.

Stat pack:
Krystofer Barch skated 11 shifts for 5:47 of ice time in his debut with the Panthers, picking up 9 penalty minutes, including a charging minor and fighting major just 2:19 into Thursday's game. … Sabres forward Ville Leino opened the scoring Wednesday against the Flyers, giving him 3 goals and 10 points in 27 games this season. Leino had a breakout, 19-goal, 53-point season with Philadelphia in 2010-11 before signing a lucrative six-year contract during the offseason.

Puck drop: Leino has been hot of late, picking up 1 goal and 3 assists over Buffalo's last three games, but he'll have to sit this one out. Leino received a one-game suspension from the League on Thursday due to an elbowing incident Wednesday against Philadelphia.

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