The Buffalo Sabres
honored their past before Friday night's home finale, then assured a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their immediate future.
Nathan Gerbe scored a highlight-reel goal midway through the third period to tie the game and Thomas Vanek won it with a breakaway goal 1:16 into OT as the Sabres beat the slumping Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 on Friday night.
The Sabres (42-29-10) can finish no worse that seventh in the Eastern Conference -- they can go as high as six by getting one more point at Columbus on Saturday than Montreal does at Toronto.
The win came in their regular-season home finale, which began after about 80 Sabres alumni were introduced -- creating an electric atmosphere.
"The guys wanted it bad tonight," said Vanek, who also had a pair of assists. "It was loud and it's exciting. We put a lot of work in, and this one feels better than the other ones."
The victory capped a second-half surge by a team that was as many as 10 points out of contention in mid-January. Buffalo improved to 28-11-6 since Dec. 28, and is 15-4-4 since Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula completed the purchase of the franchise in February.
Gerbe's second goal, which tied the game at 3-3 and secured the Sabres a playoff-clinching point, was one for the franchise's highlight reel. He drove up right wing, came to a skidding stop inside the right circle and then spun around while in one motion lifting a blind backhander at the net that sneaked through a crowd and just inside the left post past Sergei Bobrovsky.
It was enough to impress former Sabres captain Pat LaFontaine, who scored some big goals himself in Buffalo.
"I don't know if it was the velocity, but it was the quickness with how he did it," LaFontaine said. "That was pretty special. That's a big goal."
The Flyers are heading into the playoffs in a funk, dropping to 0-3-2 over their last five, the team's longest winless skid of the season. Philadelphia (46-23-12) fell into a tie with Pittsburgh for first place in the Atlantic Division title -- the Flyers can clinch with a win at home against the Islanders on Saturday -- and can no longer catch Washington for top spot in the East.
"It's so frustrating," forward Danny Briere said. "We're not looking at positioning as much as trying to come up rolling to start the playoffs."
Briere and Scott Hartnell had a goal and assist, and Kris Versteeg also scored for Philadelphia, which blew a two-period lead for the sixth time this season.
"We're still in good position in that we control our destiny for second place" in the conference and first in the division, Briere said. "But it's still frustrating."
Jason Pominville also scored for Buffalo, while Ryan Miller earned the win by stopping all eight shots he faced after replacing Jhonas Enroth to start the third period. It was Miller's first appearance after missing four games since taking a shot off the collarbone against Toronto on March 29.
Miller's presence provided the Sabres the boost coach Lindy Ruff was looking for after the Flyers scored twice in a 39-second span midway through the second period to take a 3-2 lead.
After Gerbe's goal got them even, the Sabres took no chances in securing at least a tie and the point they needed to assure themselves of a playoff berth. Getting the puck with 40 seconds left, Buffalo players controlled it in their own zone with the Flyers hanging back at their blue line. Seeing what was happening, the crowd got up and provided a standing ovation until the final buzzer sounded.
Vanek then won the game by bursting up the middle, splitting the Flyers defense flipping a backhander past Bobrovsky. Sabres players then gathered at center and saluted the crowd, before taking off their jerseys to distribute them to contest-winning fans.
"The atmosphere was tremendous," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I told the players it was going to be like a playoff game. ... I told them to just have fun. Go out and play."
Gerbe had one of the biggest smiles afterward.
"To get in the playoffs is a great feeling," said Gerbe, who has scored 15 of his 16 goals this season in the past 37 games.
And it wasn't lost on him that the Sabres could well face the Flyers in the first round next week.
"They wanted to knock us out of the playoffs," Gerbe said. "For us, we knew this was important. We knew it would be a battle, and we knew nit was going to be a playoff atmosphere."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report