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Sabres closing in on Northeast crown

by Brian Compton and Brian Hunter
The bounces went Buffalo's way on Saturday night. Because of that, the Sabres inched closer to a division title.

Ryan Miller made 31 saves and Tyler Myers and Paul Gaustad each had two assists as Buffalo made it two in a row with a 3-1 win against the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center.

Jochen Hecht, Patrick Kaleta and Mike Grier each scored for the Sabres, who increased their lead in the Northeast Division to seven points.

"It seems like the ones that are in the good areas don't want to go in, but the ones that bounce off people and are in the tough areas give you a little better chance," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "Tonight was a strange one. The puck was bouncing a lot and there was a few plays you'd like to have back where the puck could have laid down better for both teams."

Byron Bitz scored the lone goal for the Panthers, while goaltender Tomas Vokoun was pulled for the second straight game in favor of Scott Clemmensen. Vokoun, who made 17 saves, was also yanked in Tuesday's 7-3 loss to Washington.

"I didn't think that he was good enough. … It wasn't a good enough first period by anybody, including our goaltender," Florida coach Pete DeBoer said.

Buffalo broke a scoreless tie on Hecht's goal with 6:34 left in the first. His shot from the goal line hit Vokoun before trickling into the net.

Kaleta chased Vokoun at 2:54 of the second. Vokoun came out wide of the net to face a shot, but it took an awkward bounce and came back out in front. Kaleta put in the rebound with a wrist shot to make it 2-0.

"We got it to the net," Kaleta said. "That's what we've been preaching for the whole season, getting pucks to the net. Look around the League … there's a pretty goal here and there, but they are mostly garbage goals and poking away."

Florida cut the deficit in half with Bitz's goal at 11:04 of the second. Bitz, who returned to the lineup Saturday after missing four games because of a lower-body injury, has five goals this season. Grier, though, put the game away 13:49 into the third.

"It hit me around the shoulder or the mask area," Miller said. "Maybe I should have retreated or spread out a bit. I had the sensation maybe it was coming behind me a little bit. It landed perfectly for them."

Predators 1, Blue Jackets 0, OT

Cody Franson scored 1:54 into overtime and Pekka Rinne posted his second straight shutout as Nashville stretched its winning streak to five games by blanking Columbus at Bridgestone Arena.

Rinne and Columbus counterpart Steve Mason were equally solid during regulation. Rinne stopped all 32 shots he saw in the first 60 minutes and then one more in overtime. Mason made 30 saves, all before the extra session.

''When the game is 0-0 in the third period, then you start thinking that you are only going to need one goal,'' Rinne said. ''It was a very disciplined game. I think everyone knew it was just a matter of one goal.''

Three of Rinne's last four wins have come via shutout. He has gone 132 minutes, 36 seconds without allowing a goal.

''He's been really sharp,'' Preds coach Barry Trotz said. ''He's doing a good job. He's moving, his hands have been good, he's been seeing the puck, and obviously playing very well for us.''

Mason was disappointed he was unable to deny Franson's blast, which came with traffic in front of the net. Three of Franson's six goals this season have been game-winners.

''I didn't read it off of his stick very well, and he has a hard shot,'' Mason said. ''It snuck through I guess. At the end of the day, I made that one mistake there at the end and it cost the team the game.''

Kings 1, Islanders 0 | HIGHLIGHTS

Jonathan Quick made 26 saves and posted his fourth shutout of the season and Brad Richardson scored in the first period, leading Los Angeles past New York at the Staples Center.

The Kings, seeking their first playoff berth since 2002, climbed over Colorado into sixth place in the Western Conference. They have a six-point lead over ninth-place Calgary with 10 games left.

"There are things that do not end up on a score sheet but are invaluable to a team," Quick said. "I think it was a great game, a great third period. Having the lead and not giving it up, and the way we played, the way we killed penalties gives the team a little boost of confidence after these past two games."

The loss hinders the Isles' chances of making the playoffs. They remain six points behind No. 8 Boston with only 10 games remaining in the regular season. Dwayne Roloson made 25 saves in the loss as his team went 1-1-1 on its three-game West Coast swing. The Islanders -- who went 0-for-4 on the power play -- return to the New York area for Wednesday's showdown with the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Kings scored the only goal of the game at 13:35 of the first with Richardson's 11th goal, when he beat Roloson to the stick side with a wrister after Isles forward Kyle Okposo lost control of the puck in the left corner and Wayne Simmonds sent it to the slot.

Okposo nearly tied the game in the final 10 seconds, when he took a brilliant pass from John Tavares from behind the net and sent a one-timer from the slot that Quick managed to gobble up.

"We had some chances. You have to give Jonathan Quick a lot of credit," Roloson said. "He played very well at the other end. It's tough on back-to- back games. We came out sluggish and the first period we didn't generate that many opportunities. Every good shot we had, Jonathan made a great save."

Blues 1, Devils 0

St. Louis Blues goalie Ty Conklin has had these moments before.

Moments when he seems unbeatable and continually frustrates the opposition with save after save -- he did it with Pittsburgh in 2007-08 and again with the Detroit Red Wings last season. Now, with his team desperate for victories in attempt to make one final gasp at a Stanley Cup Playoff berth, he's proving it again.

Alexander Steen's goal late in the first period was all the support Conklin needed on Saturday en route to a 29-save performance that led the Blues to a 1-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils before 17,625 at Prudential Center.

To read the full Blues-Devils recap, click here.

Maple Leafs 3, Canadiens 2 (SO) | HIGHLIGHTS

If the Toronto Maple Leafs found the post-regulation time success they have shown of late, coach Ron Wilson's team might be doing just more than acting as spoilers in the NHL playoff race.

As it is, John Mitchell's shootout goal combined with goalie Jonas Gustavsson's stop on Brian Gionta gave last-place Toronto a 3-2 victory at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night -- its fourth straight extra-time win after 12 losses in 13 overtime/shootout games to start the season.

To read the full Canadiens-Maple Leafs recap, click here

Thrashers 5, Flyers 2 | HIGHLIGHTS

The Atlanta Thrashers are one of the three worst teams in the NHL in terms of goals allowed per game, so when their coach uses the term "art" to describe a defensive effort, you know his charges have delivered a gem.

But that's exactly what John Anderson called a second period in which his team limited the Philadelphia Flyers to three shots in a 5-2 victory before 17,024 at Philips Arena that keeps the Thrashers' improbable playoff chances alive.

To read the full Flyers-Thrashers recap, click here.

Stars 5, Senators 4 | HIGHLIGHTS

If the slumping Ottawa Senators were hoping to establish some positive momentum as the regular season winds down and the Stanley Cup Playoffs beckon, a visit to the American Airlines Center for a date with the desperate Dallas Stars wasn't the place for it to start.

Brad Richards scored twice and Jamie Benn had the go-ahead goal with 52.9 seconds left in the second period as the fading Stars stayed afloat in the Western Conference race with a 5-4 win on Saturday afternoon.

To read the full Stars-Sens recap, click here.

Material from wire services and broadcast media was used in this report.

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