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Sabres continue surge on home ice

by Brian Hunter
With just over two months left in the regular season, the Buffalo Sabres would rather be fighting for home-ice advantage than trying to hang on to one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Ryan Miller made 35 saves, extending his shutout streak to nearly 160 minutes before finally allowing a goal, and the Sabres topped the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 on Friday night for their fifth straight win at HSBC Arena. They also pulled even with Philadelphia for sixth in the East and moved within three points of the fourth-place Habs.

"I think the overall determined effort has been better," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We've been able to close out games, play a lot better brand of hockey when we're in real tight games, and we've had some games where we've been able to run the score up and give ourselves a little distance, which is nice."

Red-hot Tim Connolly scored early in the third period, his ninth goal in as many games, and it turned out to be the winner. Jaroslav Spacek and Nathan Paetsch also tallied for Buffalo.

Saku Koivu and Roman Hamrlik had the Montreal goals, with Koivu snapping Miller's scoreless streak at a career-best 157 minutes, 13 seconds -- including back-to-back shutouts of Phoenix and Toronto.

"Keep the winning streak going -- that's better," Miller said. "Shutouts are nice when they happen, but the main thing is to get the win. I thought we played a good game. We got our feet under us after the first period and really played a solid hockey game."

Six losses in their last eight games have put an end to whatever slim hopes the Canadiens might have had of catching Boston in the Northeast Division and dropped them back into the middle of the playoff pack as they prepare for a six-game Western trip beginning next week.

"Obviously, it's not an easy situation for our club," coach Guy Carbonneau said. "We didn't capitalize on the chances we had, and they did."

Miller was the difference-maker in the first period, when Montreal came out buzzing and held a 15-5 advantage in shots. His best stop came when he reached back to snag a Max Pacioretty shot out of the air. The game remained scoreless after 20 minutes, but it didn't take long into the second for that to change.

Spacek, back in the lineup after missing two games due to a hip injury, beat Carey Price 27 seconds into the middle period on a blast from just inside the blue line that handcuffed the goaltender.

"It was a good screen that the 'D' kind of moved my way. I tried to put it on the net and I think the goalie couldn't see it until the last second," Spacek said. "Sometimes the goals like this go in."

Koivu got the Canadiens even on a power play midway through the second. He stripped Sabres defenseman Chris Butler of the puck in the corner, then walked out in front for a shot past Miller at 10:21.

Paetsch, a converted defenseman playing on the wing, restored the Sabres' lead 1:55 later. After some hard work by Adam Mair to control the puck behind the net, Paetsch netted his second of the season, putting Buffalo ahead to stay.

"It's getting annoying going into the third period down. Every time it seems like playing catch-up," Montreal forward Chris Higgins said. "We need to get aggressive."

Connolly made it 3-1 at 4:55 of the third after Mike Komisarek's attempted pass from behind the Montreal goal took a funny bounce and ended up right in front of the net. Connolly cleaned up for his 11th goal.

Hamrlik made it a one-goal game with 3:26 left when he pinched in from the point and snapped a shot past Miller from the slot. Less than a minute earlier, Miller was sharp in denying Andrei Markov on a drive from the left circle.

"He's doing a great job," Buffalo captain Craig Rivet said of his goalie. "He's doing a really fantastic job back there, giving us a lot of confidence to play in front of him. When you're confident, you're playing well."

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

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