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Sabres 6, Islanders 4 @NHLdotcom

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Chris Drury and the Buffalo Sabres received a timely late-season reminder of how important it is to not take any lead - even a four-goal edge - for granted.

At least it didn't cost them.

Drury scored twice and added an assist to spark a five-goal first period, and the Sabres hung on for a 6-4 win over the New York Islanders on Friday.

Besides inching to within a victory of clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Buffalo (50-20-7) also gained sole possession of first place in the NHL.

"The first period was obviously our best, and then we got pretty sloppy after that," Drury said. "But at the end of the day, it's still a `W,' and it's better than getting on the plane with a loss. ... Sometimes you win ugly."

Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford had a goal and assist each, while Jason Pominville added three assists in helping the Sabres build a 5-1 lead before the game was 15 minutes old. It took Dainius Zubrus' goal with 7:29 left to seal the victory, putting the Sabres ahead 6-3.

Buffalo which travels to play at Montreal on Saturday, became the first NHL team to reach 50 wins this season. With 107 points, Buffalo moved one ahead of Detroit in the league race, following the Red Wings' 4-3 shootout loss to Dallas.

The Islanders took little solace from their late-game rally in which they twice cut Buffalo's lead to two goals. What hurt is how the injury-depleted Islanders (36-29-12) are struggling to remain in the playoff hunt.

The Islanders, who have five games left, remain tied with Carolina for 10th in the East in a tightly contested race between six teams separated by four points vying for the final three playoff spots.

"I don't feel good about any way you lose, whether it's 4-3, 5-3 or 15-1," New York coach Ted Nolan said. "It doesn't matter. You have to find a way to win one."

Besides missing starting goalie Rick DiPietro (concussion) for a second straight game, New York was also minus high-scoring left wing Ryan Smyth, who's listed day-to-day because of a leg injury.

DiPietro's injury hampers the Islanders the most, considering backup Mike Dunham allowed five goals on the first 10 shots he faced and was pulled after the first period. Dunham has lost five straight starts, a stretch in which he's allowed 24 goals.

Viktor Kozlov led New York with two goals, while Tom Poti and Jason Blake also scored.

Wade Dubielewicz, called up this week from the minors by the Islanders, stopped 17 shots.

No excuses, said Nolan.

"We have to ... concentrate on what we have to do to make the playoffs," he said. "It has nothing to do with Dunham's play. You give them three or four breakaways and that's tough on a goaltender."

Nolan was referring to Derek Roy's game-opening goal and Drury's second of the game, both coming on short-handed breakaways.

Buffalo took control by scoring three goals during a 3:01 span to build a 4-1 lead before the game was 11 minutes old. Vanek opened the surge by scoring from behind the net, slipping the puck in with Dunham looking the wrong way. Drury then one-timed a shot in from the left circle, while Stafford capped the run by collecting a rebound in front and backhanding it over a helpless Dunham.

Buffalo also converted 3-of-7 power-play opportunities.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff called a timeout after the Islanders scored twice in the third period to cut the lead to 5-3.

"Yeah, he didn't have to say much but ask, `Are we ready to play?"' Roy said. "They made it a game and I think that helped us mentally."

Notes: Smyth has four goals and nine assists in 13 games since the Islanders acquired him from Edmonton at the NHL trade deadline last month. ... Sabres C Daniel Briere had two assists to give him 92 points (31 goals, 61 assists), the most by a Buffalo player since the team had three with 96 or more points in 1992-93. ... Buffalo has scored two short-handed goals in a game twice this season. The Sabres first did it by scoring two empty-netters in a 7-4 win over Toronto in November.

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