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by Chris Ryndak / Buffalo Sabres

SUNRISE, FLORIDA – The Buffalo Sabres ended their two-game road trip in Florida with a 3-2 loss to the Panthers on Saturday at BB&T Center.

Drew Stafford and Brian Gionta scored for Buffalo while Michal Neuvirth stopped 34 shots. Florida never trailed in the game.

After a 5-0 loss Thursday night to Tampa Bay, the Sabres responded with a better effort.

“That’s the way we’ve got to play. Unfortunately we came up on the short end of a 3-2 but those are the type of games we have to play – hard-fought,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said.

“I thought we played physically. We made a lot of hits. We had a few chances. We missed them and they capitalized on one of our mistakes on the third goal.”

Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo entered the game with three-straight shutout performances against the Sabres. He had made 91 consecutive saves before Buffalo ended that streak with 8:58 remaining in the second period with Stafford’s tally.

Buffalo put 28 pucks on net, many in tight and on good scoring chances.

“It was a start but I thought he made a lot of point-blank saves that I wish we could’ve had back. But we did all the right plays,” Cody Hodgson said. “We got the puck up, we jammed the puck. We went hard to the net and threw pucks there. It’s just we couldn’t get anything by him.”

The goal by Stafford came as a result of a nice play by Hodgson, who skated from the left corner and started going to the point before heading to the middle of the ice, drawing three Panthers to him. He then sent the puck back to the left wing where Stafford fired a one-timer past Luongo.

“Cody had great vision and he was able to slide it over. It’s right in my wheelhouse so it’s a pretty golden opportunity,” Stafford said. “You get enough of those, they’ll start going in. It was a great play by him.”

It was Stafford’s first game back after missing the previous three with a lower-body injury.

Hodgson hadn’t had a point since Oct. 25 when he scored in San Jose. He scored a shootout goal on Tuesday and Nolan has seen his confidence grow recently.

“You’ve just got to keep with it. For a playmaker or goal scorer like he is, to make that type of play, not too many guys can make it. But he made it tonight,” Nolan said. “He scored a shootout goal for us, he made this play so those points are coming more frequently.”

Stafford’s goal made it a 1-1 game. Bad Boyes had opened the scoring with 6:55 remaining in the first period, wristing a cross-ice pass from Jussi Jokinen up and over Neuvirth’s shoulder.

The Panthers regained the lead 1:53 after the Stafford goal when Tomas Kopecky deflected in a rocket from the point by rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad, the top pick in this year’s draft, recorded three assists on the night to extend his point streak to four games.

Buffalo once again tied the game with 4:06 remaining in the second. Gionta deflected in a wrist shot from Mike Weber. However, the Panthers went into the third period with the lead thanks to a goal by Nick Bjugstad with 16.2 seconds left.

With Neuvirth down after making a save, Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers fell down in the crease. The puck then found its way to Bjugstad on the doorstep, who put it home.

“It’s definitely deflating. I thought we were playing really well even up to that point and after that, but it just bounced a couple wrong ways and they were able to jam it in,” Hodgson said.

Buffalo had a prime opportunity to tie the game when they given a power play with 4:14 left in regulation. They generated only one shot.

The Sabres power play went 0-for-2 against Florida and is 0-for-8 over the past four games. They have just one power-play goal in their past 19 opportunities – over a span of eight games (Buffalo has gone 5-3-0 during that stretch).

“That’s been one of the things we’ve been trying to fix and get some remedies for,” Nolan said. “A power play with four minutes left, down a goal, that’s when those special teams really come in, they have to be special.”

Next up for Buffalo is a home game Tuesday night against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings.

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