A strong start to the new year has the Florida Panthers thinking playoffs. A win over the Buffalo Sabres could help the drive toward their first postseason berth in nine years.
The Panthers (21-16-7) look for their sixth win in eight games on Monday night against the visiting Sabres (23-17-5), who have won six of their last eight.
Jay Bouwmeester extended an impressive points streak by scoring with a second left in the second period on Saturday to lead Florida to a 4-3 comeback victory in Tampa Bay.
With the win, the Panthers improved to 5-0-2 in 2009 and moved into ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 49 points, one behind eighth-place Pittsburgh and two in back of Buffalo.
Florida hasn't been to the playoffs since 1999-2000, and has reached the postseason only three times in franchise history including a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1995-96.
"It's been an uphill climb," Panthers first-year coach Peter DeBoer said. "It wasn't that long ago we were sitting in 29th, 30th (overall), but there's still a long ways to go."
After tallying 2.46 goals per game in its first 37 games, Florida has averaged 4.71 goals over its last seven, and the Panthers' power-play unit has helped out, scoring nine times in their last 31 opportunities.
Bouwmeester, who will make his second All-Star Game appearance in three seasons on Sunday in Montreal, has a six-game points streak with four goals and three assists. Nathan Horton, who had a season-high three assists on Saturday, has six goals and five assists in the last 10 games, and Cory Stillman has a point in five straight games.
Buffalo, which starts a season-high, six-game road trip, is 6-3-1 record in its last 10 away from home, a run that began following a 2-1 loss on Dec. 4 at the BankAtlantic Center. That broke a three-game winning streak there for the Sabres, who have won five of the last seven overall against the Panthers.
In Saturday's 3-1 victory over visiting Carolina, Ryan Miller continued his strong play of late, stopping 36 shots.
"Miller played great for us," said Tim Connolly, who scored twice. "Whenever he plays like that we're probably going to win the hockey game."
Over his last seven starts, Miller has a 6-1-0 record and a 1.96 goals-against average. He has won four of his last five starts versus the Panthers with a 1.60 GAA, including a shutout last season at Florida.
Aiding Miller is one of the league's top penalty kill units, which has allowed two goals in the last 22 power plays. Also helping is the play of Derek Roy, who has five goal and six assists in an eight-game streak.
Roy leads the team with 26 assists and 42 points, but Thomas Vanek, among the NHL's leaders with 27 goals, has gone a season-high five games without one.
Buffalo lost veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen indefinitely on Saturday after he was struck in the face by a shot from Carolina's Tim Gleason. The 40-year-old, who scored in the first period and played eight shifts after he was hit, had surgery on Sunday to repair a fractured bone in his face.