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Sabres edge Coyotes in OT

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE. Ariz. – The Buffalo Sabres are using overtime points to climb back toward the playoff race in the East, while the Phoenix Coyotes continue to squander overtime opportunities that could make their lives a lot easier in the West.

Drew Stafford beat Phoenix goalie Jason LaBarbera with a wrist shot with 1:48 left in overtime and the Sabres ended a three-game Western road string with five of a possible six points and collected their fifth straight win over Phoenix with a 2-1 win Saturday night at Arena.

Stafford used Phoenix defenseman Ed Jovanovski as a screen to collect his ninth goal in the last 11 games and his extended his latest scoring streak to four games. Buffalo is now 4-0-1 in the last five games and ended a three-game Western trip with wins at San Jose and Phoenix.

"I was just trying to get a screen shot through, I didn't really see the goalie at all," Stafford said. "I was trying to shoot it through a hole. Get it on net and it happened to sneak in. It's huge, not only to cap off the big road trip but to be back at .500 (18-18-5). Now it's a matter of carrying it over to home play next week."

The Sabres are still eight points out of a playoff spot at the midway point in the season but their recnt play has coach Lindy Ruff optimistic.

"We're starting to gain a little ground, which is good. You get five points out of six on this trip and it's a good sign," Ruff said. "I thought we played good in the first period … they played good in the second and the third period was a good hockey game."

But in the overtime, the Coyotes regressed in what has becoming a concerning trend. Phoenix was an NHL-best 19-1-6 in overtime last year and those 38 points played a huge role in their franchise record 107-point season. But this season has been a complete reversal – the Coyotes are 2-9 after regulation and a frustrating 0-6 in games decided in the five-minute overtime period.

"It's a huge difference," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "Last year, we were finding ways to win. I remember a game when Jovanovski was in the crease and the puck hit him in the shaft of the stick and the puck went in and games were just falling our way. This year, the odds seem to be against us. And those are valuable points we're missing out on.

"We've had major hiccups in some games and penalties in some, but others have just been timely goals by the other side."

This one fell into the latter category as Stafford ruined a strong goaltending night for LaBarbera – who found out 90 minutes before faceoff that he'd be starting in place of the flu-ridden Ilya Bryzgalov.

"You come to the rink and you have to do a complete 180 (mentally)," LaBarbera said. "I thought I could hang out and relax a little bit, but that wasn't the case."

Jordan Leopold, who assisted on Stafford's game-winner, scored in the second period for Buffalo and Scottie Upshall answered for Phoenix six minutes later, but the night belonged to two hot goaltenders both coming off shutout wins.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, coming off a blanking in San Jose Thursday, was almost as good again with 33 saves, coming up big late in the second period when the Coyotes tilted the ice and made their bid to take over the game.

Buffalo capitalized on a careless tripping penalty by struggling Phoenix forward Wojtek Wolski. Just six seconds into the power play, Leopold took advantage of a Thomas Vanek shot to put a rising shot from the high point by LaBarbera put the Sabres ahead. Vanek earned an assist on the play to extend his point streak to four games (3-3-6).

But that goal seemed to do more for Phoenix than Buffalo, who woke up and dominated the final 13 minutes of the period. The Coyotes didn't score on a power-play chance, but just as Luke Adam left the Sabres box Upshall cleaned up a long rebound of an Adrian Aucoin shot and had an empty net to shoot at to tie the game at 12:31. Upshall has four of his 12 goals in the last five games and has eight points over that span.

Phoenix kept up the pressure with 18 shots in the period, five of them coming in the final minute of the period when they held pinned the puck in the Buffalo zone and had the five Sabres trapped on the ice gasping for air after the second-period buzzer. But Miller made all the saves, helping to curb the momentum.

Jovanovski was honored before the game for playing in his 1,000th NHL game on Dec. 26 at Dallas. Center Kyle Turris returned to the Phoenix lineup after missing Thursday's win in Colorado with an upper body injury. Bryzgalov dressed at the backup goalie on Saturday and is expected to be ready for Monday's game in St. Louis. Buffalo lost defenseman Chris Butler during the game, and Ruff said the injury went back to Thursday when he was hit trying to block a shot in San Jose. He will be out for an undetermined time.
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