With all the former Florida Panthers in the building Saturday night, it's a shame original goalie John Vanbiesbrouck couldn't make it.
He might have been asked to play.
Tomas Vokoun was pulled after giving up a pair of soft goals within the first 23 minutes Saturday night as the Northeast Division leading Sabres continued their march to the playoffs with a 3-1 victory over the Panthers at BankAtlantic Center.
Saturday's loss – Florida's third straight – spoiled the beginning of a reunion weekend of sorts as players from the team's past gathered to open the South Florida Hockey Den of Honor on the arena's concourse level.
Vanbiesbrouck, who backstopped Florida's run to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals, was working a college hockey playoff tournament in Detroit for television and couldn't attend the event.
“I didn't think he was good enough tonight, but it was a spark thing too,'' said coach Pete DeBoer, who has pulled Vokoun in the second period in two of the past three games. “It wasn't a good enough first period by anyone, including our goaltender. I don't analyze my decision. I thought it was the right thing to do. Clemmensen played well.''
The Sabres got going when Jochen Hecht drove in on Vokoun and put up a shot that Vokoun got a piece of but couldn't stop. Early in the second, Patrick Kaleta made it 2-0 when he fired a shot from the goal line that clipped a diving Vokoun but still found its way in.
Scott Clemmensen, who has made a grand total of one start in the 2010 calendar year, was summoned from the bullpen.
“There was a lucky bounce on the second goal against Vokoun, but there was a lot of game left,'' said Clemmensen, who stopped 16 shots but gave up the backbreaking goal to Mike Grier with 6:11 left. “I went in there to do my best and I thought we played well.''
Byron Bitz, who missed the past four games with what is believed to be a groin injury, was back in the lineup Saturday and paid almost immediate dividends. With the Panthers trailing 2-0 in the second, Bitz knocked down a shot from Kamil Kreps in front of the net, turned and pushed the puck past Buffalo's Ryan Miller.
Bitz, who was acquired from Boston in the Dennis Seidenberg trade deadline deal, got his first goal as a member of the Panthers.
“We were sluggish in the first period, but weathered the storm,'' Bitz said. “That's probably the best goalie in the league over there and he made some stops.''
With the loss, Florida dropped to 14th in the Eastern Conference as Carolina moved a point ahead. The Panthers are now endanger of finishing last in the entire conference as Toronto has moved to within three points of Florida.
DEN OF HONOR
The Panthers unveiled their 4,000 square foot tribute to hockey in the region on Saturday. The South Florida Hockey Den of Honor wasn't finished until a few hours before its grand opening as a number of staffers worked through the night to make sure it was finished. One said he had been at the arena for 29 straight hours.
By all accounts, the hard work was worth it. The 'Den' was a major hit.
“This weekend is very special to each and every one of us,'' said Brian Skrudland, the team's first captain.
Not only is there plenty of Panthers memorabilia from throughout the decades on display, but high school and youth hockey in the area. Each high school team from Broward County has its jersey on display – including the one worn by Peter Worrell's North Broward Prep team.
“This can be an inspiration for kids to see that they can make it to this level,'' said Worrell, who played for the Panthers from 1997-2003. “And I know they will be thrilled to come to a game and see their jersey hanging up. And they get to make fun of their coach when they see all those old pictures.''
All of the players and coaches – including Doug MacLean, Scott Mellanby and Paul Laus -- are expected to attend Sunday's game against the Lightning as well.