BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Thanks to Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff avoided having to explain why his team couldn't beat the Florida Panthers this season.
"It would've been tough to stand here and explain to you guys why they had our number if we would've lost again," Ruff said. "It's satisfying."
Vanek scored twice, sparking a three-goal eruption, in leading the Sabres to a 5-3 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night. Besides avoiding a four-game season-series sweep against Florida, Buffalo bounced back from sloppy 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal on Thursday.
Both were important factors to overcome for a Sabres team intent on remaining slump proof.
"We had a saying earlier in the year, refuse to lose two in a row. And it hasn't happened very often," Ruff said.
The Sabres improved to 8-0-1 in their last nine and have only once lost back-to-back games in regulation since a four-game losing streak in the first week of November. With a 36-15-4 record, Buffalo is now one win shy of matching its total from last season.
J.P. Dumont and Jason Pominville had a goal and assist each, and Jiri Novotny scored his first career goal for the Sabres. Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov had two assists each for Buffalo.
Chris Gratton and Jonathan Sim had a goal and assist each and Mike Van Ryn also scored for the Panthers, who were seeking their first season-series sweep of Buffalo. Florida continues to struggle on the road, entering the game with seven road wins, the fourth fewest in the NHL.
"We can't put some consistency together," Gratton said of the team's struggles away from home. "We have some success one game and then seem to falter the next game."
So much for the promise Florida showed in a 5-0 win at Washington on Tuesday.
"We had some mental mistakes, myself included," goalie Roberto Luongo said.
The game turned late in the second period and after Gratton and Sim scored 6 minutes apart to tie the game at 2.
Vanek put the Sabres ahead for good in the final minute of the period, taking advantage of a delayed penalty after Afinogenov was tripped inside the Panthers' zone. While lying face down, Afinogenov swept the puck to Vanek, who snapped a shot beating Luongo inside the near left post.
"That goal was the turning point," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said. "We had the momentum but gave them the goal in the last minute."
Vanek then put Buffalo ahead 4-2 with a great individual effort five minutes into the third period. After Sim whiffed in his attempt to bat in a bouncing puck over fallen goalie Ryan Miller, Vanek led a rush up the right wing. Beating Panthers defender Lukas Krajicek around the Florida net, Vanek wrapped it in behind a diving Luongo.
"I don't think we panicked or anything, we just came out hard," Vanek said. "It was a little bit better than we played against Montreal, for sure. And it paid off."
Buffalo's five goals were one more than the team had scored in its three losses to Florida this season.
Dumont produced the most creative goal in opening the scoring late in the first period, batting in Ales Kotalik's flip pass out of the air and bouncing it past Luongo's outstretched blocker.
Notes: Gratton and Sim each extended their point streaks to four games. Gratton has four goals and six assists during that stretch, while Sim has six goals and two assists. ... The Sabres avoided squandering a two-goal lead for the first time this season. Buffalo improved to 23-0 when leading by two goals, and is one of only three teams - Carolina (28-0) and San Jose (19-0) - to not blow a two-goal lead this season. ... Novotny's goal came in his sixth career game, in the lineup filling in after Jochen Hecht sprained his right knee Thursday.