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Sabres look to keep hot streak going vs. Panthers

by Tal Pinchevsky
SABRES (25-22-5) at PANTHERS (23-24-6)

TV -- MSG-B (HD), FS-F (HD)

Last 10 -- Buffalo 7-3-0; Florida 2-4-4

Season series -- This is the third game this season between two teams on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff race. In their last meeting, Dec. 23, Jason Garrison's third-period goal allowed the Panthers to leave Buffalo with a 4-3 win. The Panthers won 6-2 in their previous meeting, played a week earlier in Florida.

Big story -- With every game becoming more and more important in the final two months of the season, the Sabres are doing their best to make the teams ahead of them sweat, going 10-4-1 in the new year. The Panthers, on the other hand, have lost four of their last five games but still remain just seven points out of eighth place in the East. With both teams holding games in hand on eighth-place Carolina, this one could go a long way towards their respective playoff fortunes.

Team Scope:

Sabres --
With four wins in their last five games, Buffalo is hoping to stay hot before closing the month with a six-game homestand and starting March with a season-long seven-game road trip. On Tuesday in Tampa Bay, the Sabres exploded for five third-period goals to top the Lightning 7-4.

Against the Lightning, Drew Stafford scored his second hat trick in his last 12 games. His output was almost matched by teammate Thomas Vanek, who scored twice and added an assist. With 13 goals in their last two games, the Sabres have been on an offensive tear of late, giving franchise goaltender Ryan Miller some comfortable leads to work with.

Panthers -- A January stretch that saw the Panthers register points in six straight games put the team in position to compete for a playoff spot. But going 2-4-1 since has hurt Florida's chances of making the postseason for the first time in 11 years.

At home against the Blues on Tuesday, the Panthers took the lead on Dennis Wideman's first-period goal before allowing the tying goal in the final minute of the second period. Matt D'Agostini's winner with four minutes left in the third capped a 2-1 Panthers loss, marking the third straight game in which Florida relinquished a lead.

"It's exhausting on everybody because you're playing 60-plus minutes right to the end," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "We've got to find a way to win these one-goal games."

Who's hot -- Stafford has 7 points in his last four games while Vanek has 16 points in his last 10 games for the Sabres. … Panthers center Stephen Weiss has 4 points in his last four games.

Injury report -- For Buffalo, Derek Roy (quad) remains on IR while defenseman Steve Montador is out with an upper-body injury and forward Patrick Kaleta is expected to return from a hand injury. … Panthers forward Cory Stillman sustained an upper-body injury against St. Louis and is questionable for Thursday. Shawn Matthias (ankle), Evgeny Dadonov (finger), Bryan McCabe (jaw), and Byron Bitz (sports hernia) all are on IR.

Stat pack -- Thursday potentially could be an eventful night for Weiss. He has 7 points in his last six games against Buffalo and needs one more shot on goals to tie Pavel Bure for fifth on the franchise's all-time list.

Puck drop -- Many wrote off the Sabres when then-leading scorer Derek Roy was placed on IR on Dec. 28 with a leg injury. But the injury instead has sparked an offensive resurgence in Buffalo. Since Roy officially was placed on IR, the Sabres have averaged an astounding 3.4 goals per game. Vanek may have benefited most from Roy's absence, scoring 22 points in the 16 games since Roy was placed on injured reserve.
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