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Sabres shred Leafs 5-1

by Brian Hunter

The Sabres continued their surge upward in the Eastern Conference standings with a 5-1 victory over the fading Maple Leafs
Highlights from the Sabres' win
Seemingly energized by a late comeback at home Wednesday against Tampa Bay, the Buffalo Sabres picked up right where they left off when the puck dropped Thursday at Air Canada Centre.

Ales Kotalik scored twice and Thomas Vanek followed up his hat trick with a goal and two assists as the Sabres continued their surge upward in the Eastern Conference standings with a 5-1 victory over the fading Maple Leafs. With four points in two nights, they pulled into a tie with the New York Rangers for sixth and hold a game in hand.

Ryan Miller made 34 saves for Buffalo and was particularly strong early and late, turning aside 14 shots in the first period and 13 more in the third. He credited his defenseman with doing a good job in front of him.

“That’s been the difference with our game for the last month, month and a half,” Miller said. “We’re all responsible on defense and it makes my job a lot easier. I can challenge, I can compete, I can come out and not worry about so many options, I can really find the guy that’s going to definitely be open in the shooting lane.”

Brian Campbell had a goal and an assist, Derek Roy also scored and Jaroslav Spacek collected a pair of assists for the Sabres.

“It’s going to be a grind until the end of the year,” Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. “You can fluctuate three or four places based off who wins and who loses. You won’t be able to tell until the final game – and I really feel that. We’re going to be in a situation where we need to keep winning games.”

A month ago, the Sabres and Leafs were both near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. But the Sabres have gone on a 10-2-2 run, while the Leafs continue to struggle.

Goaltender Ryan Miller and his teammates gave themselves a shake after some embarrassing losses in early January.

"It was a put-up or shut-up situation and we stepped up and rose to the occasion," Miller said. "It doesn't mean we're in the playoffs yet, but it means we're in position to make it now.

“We're happy with our efforts and the way the guys are competing. The guys are paying attention to details. That's a telltale sign that you want to win. It's going to take that mentality for the rest of the season so we might as well own up to it."

Campbell’s fifth of the season at 2:36 was the first period’s only goal, and the Sabres extended their lead to 2-0 59 seconds into the second on Vanek’s 26th and fourth in two games.

Pavel Kubina’s power-play goal less than two minutes later cut the deficit in half for the Maple Leafs, but it was the only shot they would put past Miller. Kotalik and Roy made it 4-1 before the period ended and Kotalik hit an empty net with 52 seconds left in the third. The goals were Kotalik’s first in 16 games.

“Any time you can get a player back on the scoresheet, it gives him a lot of confidence,” Ruff said.

The Leafs’ playoff hopes are fading fast. They’re 14th in the East and nine points out of a playoff qualifying position.

"These are the games we have to win to get back into it," said forward Matt Stajan. "But you have to give them credit. They're on a roll and their goalie is playing really well right now."

Leafs captain Mats Sundin, the subject of numerous trade rumors, declined interview requests. Leafs fans can be forgiven for be wondering if Saturday night's home game against Atlanta will be his last in the blue and white given the Tuesday trading deadline and his impending free agency.

Islanders 1, Lightning 0 | Video
The Islanders extended their longest winning streak in more than four years by putting together all the elements of their game. Their makeshift defense got the job done, their goaltender stopped everything that came his way and they got the only goal of the night before an energized crowd at Nassau Coliseum.

Rick DiPietro’s 32 saves and Miroslav Satan’s 14th goal of the season led the Islanders to their sixth straight victory and left them just one point out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot — not bad for a team left for dead after a seven-game losing streak.

"The big thing is we wanted to get back to playing smart hockey and the kind of hockey we are successful with," DiPietro said. "Just when everyone had us written off and it looks like we aren't going to be able to compete anymore, we find a way to win."

When the Islanders skated against the Flyers on Feb. 12, they had gone 0-6-1 in their previous seven games and dropped near the bottom of the East standings. Since winning that night, New York has put together its best streak since also capturing six in a row from Dec. 21-31, 2003.

"Good living and good praying. I'm not sure what it is," Islanders coach Ted Nolan said.

Nolan has probably said a few prayers for the health of his defense corps, as the Islanders continue to be without Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton, Bruno Gervais and Chris Campoli. Their fill-ins performed admirably again Thursday, and DiPietro was impenetrable, stopping 11 shots in the second period and 14 more in the third.

Satan got him all the offense he would need by snapping a shot past Lightning goalie Karri Ramo at 5:37 of the third. Sean Bergenheim fed Satan in the slot, and Ramo and sliding Tampa defenseman Filip Kuba were helpless to prevent the goal.

"I picked the spot," Satan said. "I had enough time to look at him and freeze him and I was happy to beat him."

While the Islanders remain thin on defense, they did pick up some depth at forward with the return of Chris Simon to the lineup after a 30-game suspension. Simon played a little over six minutes while skating on the fourth line with rookies Blake Comeau and Frans Nielsen.

"The most important thing is that we won," Simon said. "My teammates have been so supportive and have been great to me. I can't control what other people think and how they react. I respect that they have their opinion, and I'm just going to keep working hard in gaining them back."

Tampa Bay is last in the Eastern Conference with 57 points, and could be a seller at Tuesday’s trading deadline.

"We just have to keep fighting and keep trying," said defenseman Dan Boyle, a pending free agent who could be dealt. "A loss is frustrating, no matter which way it happens. It's a crucial two points lost."

Blue Jackets 3, Senators 2, SO | Video
Columbus picked up the 200th win in franchise history by winning a shootout at Scotiabank Place. More important to the Blue Jackets, they kept themselves afloat in a Western Conference playoff race that appeared to be slipping away from them after a 1-3-2 stretch.

Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev scored in the shootout and Pascal Leclaire stopped both Ottawa shooters to follow up a 27-save performance in regulation and overtime.

Columbus picked up the 200th win in franchise history by winning a shootout at Scotiabank Place.

According to Leclaire, it was time for the Blue Jackets to forget about excuses and get down to business.

“We knew we had to stop blaming a whole bunch of stuff and just kind of come back to ourselves and make sure we’re doing our job,” Leclaire said. “Today guys came around really strong and we didn’t panic. We (got) down right off the bat, but guys kept playing and played really well.”

Cory Stillman got the Senators on the board 35 seconds in with his 22nd goal and first since arriving in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrej Meszaros also tallied for Ottawa, which couldn’t hold a pair of one-goal leads but still moved into first place in the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference standings when Montreal lost to Pittsburgh.

'It would have been nice (for his goal) to be in a victory,'' Stillman said. ''It was nice to score early in the game, but for our side, you try to be the difference late. When the game's tied, you want to try and score.”

Nash tied the game at one 4:07 into the second period with his 32nd goal. Meszaros struck midway through the period on a power play to put the Senators back up going into the third, but Sergei Fedorov forced overtime when he beat Ray Emery at 5:28 with his ninth of the season and first since being activated from injured reserve Monday.

Emery made 22 saves but the Senators lost for the fourth time in five games.

Sharks 3, Flyers 1 | Video
One losing streak came to an end. An even longer one was extended, and its owners suddenly find themselves in a precarious position. Milan Michalek and Doug Murray scored 42 seconds apart early in the third period to snap a tie as San Jose broke a five-game skid and won for the first time on its eight-game road trip.

"It's not that we've been playing poorly. We just haven't been able to score," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "Fortunately, we kept our composure and our poise and got the job done in the third period."

Back in net after a rare night off, Evgeni Nabokov stopped 26 shots as the Sharks remained in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference.

The Flyers, who once led the Atlantic Division, dropped out of the top eight in the East with their ninth consecutive defeat. Martin Biron made 37 saves, but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide.

"It's pretty much rock bottom now," Flyers captain Jason Smith said. "We better turn things around quickly now or we're not going to be in a good spot."

Jonathan Cheechoo opened the scoring for the Sharks with 4:04 left in the first period, but it appeared the Flyers might gain some momentum when Mike Knuble tied the game with just six seconds left in the middle period.

Instead, Michalek broke the tie at 3:35 of the third period on a shot from the slot that seemed to trickle through Biron’s legs and into the net. The Flyers took a penalty and Murray picked up his first NHL goal on a power play, bouncing a shot off Biron like a basketball bank shot at 4:17.

The bad news for the Flyers started before they even took the ice at Wachovia Center, as it was announced Simon Gagne’s latest concussion will cause the star forward to miss the rest of the season. Coach John Stevens refused to use Gagne’s absence as an excuse.

"This is a challenge and there is nobody outside of our locker room that is going to make a difference," Stevens said. "It's up to each guy to make a difference."

Hurricanes 5, Thrashers 3 | Video
The Carolina Hurricanes are taking full advantage of home ice. Scott Walker scored a goal and added two assists as the Hurricanes improved to 5-0-1 in their last six at RBC Center with an important Southeast Division victory over the Thrashers.

"This time of your year, you've got to look within your own stall and say, 'I've got to bring what I've got tonight to help out,"' Walker said. "That's what everybody's been doing. I think everyone's been doing a great job."

The Hurricanes improved to 5-0-1 in their last six at RBC Center with an important division victory over the Thrashers.

Carolina lost in overtime to Boston on Tuesday in the first game of a six-game homestand, but the Hurricanes forced the extra period by scoring twice in a 20-second span with their goaltender pulled to tie the score. They followed up that late surge with a 60-minute effort against the Thrashers in which they outshot Atlanta 46-28.

"That's five out of six games where I've really liked the way we've played," Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette said.

Ray Whitney, Ryan Bayda, Sergei Samsonov and Keith Aucoin also scored as the ’Canes built their lead in the Southeast to four points on the Washington Capitals and five on the Thrashers.

"We knew the importance of it, obviously," Whitney said. "We came out and we had a little energy to us. We had a little spark to us. We decided we had to get pucks to the net and get them any way we can. We were certainly ready for tonight's game."

The Thrashers couldn’t say the same. They escaped the first period scoreless despite getting outshot 21-5, but the one-sided play caught up quickly with them in the second. Whitney put the Hurricanes in front at 2:08 after Eric Staal pressured Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen behind the net, causing him to cough up the puck. Staal nudged it out to Whitney, who scored his 25th of the season.

Eric Perrin put home a rebound of a Marian Hossa shot at 3:48 to draw Atlanta even, but Carolina went right back in front at the 4:59 mark when Bayda deflected Tim Gleason’s point shot past Lehtonen. Samsonov scored his seventh in 20 games since being acquired by the Hurricanes to make it 3-1 at 12:25.

"I think it was a big joke the whole first period," said Lehtonen, who faced 49 shots from the Islanders last Saturday. "I do not know why we were not ready."

Mark Recchi made it 3-2 before the second period ended, but the Hurricanes re-established themselves with goals by Walker and Aucoin in the first 10 minutes of the third before Todd White scored with 1:23 left for the Thrashers.

Bruins 5, Panthers 4, SO | Video
The Panthers let another two-goal lead slip away, and their playoff chances might be going along with them.

Zdeno Chara and Phil Kessel scored 1:38 apart late in the third period to tie the game and Marco Sturm had the lone goal in the shootout as the Boston Bruins stunned the crowd at BankAtlantic Center by rallying to improve to 3-0-1 on a five-game road trip.

“It seems like we play better on the road,” Sturm said after the Bruins improved to 17-11-3 away from TD Banknorth Garden. “We have one more big one before we go home (Saturday at Tampa Bay) … it’s just playoff hockey.”

The Panthers fell six points behind first-place Carolina in the Southeast Division and seven points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins pulled into a three-way tie with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers for sixth in the East.

Bruins coach Claude Julien replaced Tim Thomas — who yielded four goals on 12 shots — with Alex Auld at the start of the third period. Auld turned aside all 15 pucks the Panthers put on him during the third period and overtime, then denied Steve Montador, Nathan Horton and Olli Jokinen in the shootout as Boston completed its comeback.

“We needed some good goaltending and (Auld) was good for us tonight,” Julien said. “It’s never easy to come into those situations, but I’m glad that the guys fought back and got the win for him, and obviously those two points that mattered so much to us.”

Sturm and Dennis Wideman were the Bruins’ other goal-scorers during regulation, as they peppered Tomas Vokoun with 30 shots over the first 40 minutes and still found themselves trailing.

Jay Bouwmeester, Montador, Rostislav Olesz and Kamil Kreps scored for Florida. Kreps beat Thomas and the second-period horn with a wrist shot off a 2-on-1 with 0.8 seconds remaining. It gave the Panthers a 4-2 lead. But like last Saturday against Carolina and Tuesday against Pittsburgh, they couldn’t finish.

"It can't be a coincidence when it happens three games in a row," Bouwmeester said. "You've just got to get it in your head that you can't sit back and wait for bad things to happen."

Chara brought Boston within a goal when he one-timed Sturm’s pass behind Vokoun with 6:50 left in regulation, and Kessel’s wrister from the top of the faceoff circle with 5:12 to play evened the score. Vokoun made 44 saves through overtime, but had no answer for Sturm in the shootout.

Canucks 3, Predators 2, SO | Video
Roberto Luongo stole a victory for the Vancouver Canucks, with a little help from Mason Raymond.

Vancouver's Roberto Luongo made 49 saves in regulation and overtime, then was perfect in the shootout.

Luongo made 49 saves in regulation and overtime, then was perfect in the shootout while Raymond followed up a goal and an assist in regulation with the shootout winner against the Predators at Sommet Center.

"I got a lot of shots early and it got me into the game right away," Luongo said.

The win lifted the Canucks into a tie for seventh with Calgary, just two points behind San Jose and Nashville for fifth.

Raymond began the shootout by skating in on Chris Mason and putting a backhander past the Predators goalie, who was laying down on the ice.

''It's day-by-day and you are always working harder to better yourself,'' Raymond said. ''When you get a goal under your belt it gives you a bit of confidence. Confidence can carry you a long way.''

Jason Arnott had a goal and an assist for the Predators. He set up Marek Zidlicky’s game-tying power-play goal with 6:02 remaining in regulation, but Luongo made 15 saves in the third period and six more in OT, which featured a Nashville power play.

''This game was all Roberto,'' Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. ''And we're not going to apologize for it because so many times this year we outplayed the opposition and got on the wrong side of it.''

Raymond put the Canucks up 1-0 with 52 seconds left in the first, but Arnott tied it on a 5-on-3 power play 5:42 into the second. Alexander Edler restored Vancouver’s lead at 12:49 with a one-timer during a power play.

''The thing I like about this game is no one is satisfied with just one point,'' Nashville's J.P. Dumont said. ''There is a lot of frustration right now.''

Kings 5, Blues 1 | Video
The Kings began the game on their heels before Alexander Frolov and Patrick O’Sullivan got them going. Frolov recorded his third career hat trick and O’Sullivan was involved in all five goals, scoring once and adding four assists. Dan Cloutier carried a shutout deep into the third period and finished with 32 saves.

The Blues outshot the Kings 13-5 in the first period but couldn’t put anything past Cloutier, who’s been out with injuries for most of the season and was making only his third appearance of the season. Los Angeles then capitalized with a four-goal second that chased St. Louis goaltender Manny Legace.

“They had a good start to the first. We were kind of back on our heels. They outshot us pretty good that first period,” said O’Sullivan, whose point output was a career high. “At the same time we weren’t playing that bad. We felt we could maybe get a little quicker, shorten up our shifts and try to apply more pressure, and that’s what we did in the second.”

It started to pay off when Anze Kopitar put home his 26th of the season at 6:43 with the Kings on a power play. Frolov followed with his first two goals, just 2:36 apart, and O’Sullivan capped the outburst with his 15th of the season at 13:23.

Los Angeles scored four times in a span of just 6:40 and Legace was replaced by rookie backup Chris Beckford-Tseu following the O’Sullivan goal.

Frolov’s 19th and third of the game came at 3:31 of the third before Martin Rucinsky spoiled Cloutier’s shutout bid with 4:02 remaining with a power-play goal.

"Every loss stings right now as we're trying to get into the playoffs," St. Louis coach Andy Murray said. "It certainly stings, but they're one of the highest scoring teams in the league, so we know they have the potential to score goals."

St. Louis remained five points out of the last playoff spot, but O’Sullivan said the Kings — last in the League with 55 points — don’t look at themselves as spoilers.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys, and every game’s important for us,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a chance to get better every time we go out there for a game — by no means is it time to relax here and just play out the rest of the year. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

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

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