PANTHERS 4, SABRES 3
BUFFALO – The Panthers faced the Sabres for the second time in a week on Thursday night, and after the opening period, it looked like a repeat of Florida's blowout win last Friday in Sunrise.
It would not be that easy.
The embarrassed Sabres came out and played as dominating a second period as they possibly could. Buffalo outshot the Panthers by 18, outscored them by three – yet never took the lead.
That little fact was key to Florida's survival. The Panthers withstood the best Buffalo had and won the third period battle, getting a surprising goal from defenseman Jason Garrison and some huge saves from Tomas Vokoun to beat back the Sabres 4-3 at HSBC Arena.
Garrison's goal broke a 3-3 stalemate and sent the Panthers into their brief Christmas break with wins in two of three away from Sunrise and six of nine overall. Buffalo has lost three of four – two to the Panthers and one to the Lightning last Saturday in Tampa Bay.
“For us, instead of playing to win the game we played to hold the lead. We've done that before and it doesn't work for us,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “We were tied and regrouped. We got our game back. The message in the third was, we won the first, they won the second. Let's play to win.''
Garrison's goal – only the fourth in his 64-game NHL career – came with the two teams playing 4-on-4 hockey after Bryan Allen and Cody McCormick rumbled by the Florida net. Garrison picked off the puck deep in the Florida zone when Tyler Myers lost it as he fell, Garrison taking it coast-to-coast.
Flanked by David Booth, Ryan Miller must have figured Garrison would pass it on a 2-on-1 break. He didn't. Garrison looked Booth's way by fired off a shot that beat the All-Star goalie and gave Florida the lead back with 5:06 left. This time, the Panthers held it.
“I was looking to pass the whole way down,'' Garrison said. “The D played it really well and I didn't want to give up a shot there. It came down to the last second and I decided to put it on the net shortside.''
Joked Mike Weaver: “I was yelling at him to dump it in.''
The Panthers played a strong first period, jumping all over Miller like they had last week. Miller was pulled after a first period in Sunrise in which he gave up four goals on 10 shots; On Thursday, the Panthers scored three off 15.
Miller, however, stayed in this time around.
In the opening period, Florida took a 1-0 lead on a Chris Higgins goal 1:10 into the game as he chopped down on his own rebound and batted the puck into the net. The goal was Higgins' fourth of the season – and first since Nov. 12. He would get a second.
Later in the period, Stephen Weiss scored when the Panthers held a two-man advantage. Weiss took a pretty cross-ice feed from Michael Frolik across the ice to beat an angry Miller. The Buffalo goalie didn't calm down any less than two minutes later when Higgins potted his second goal by backhanding a shot from the right side of the cage.
For Higgins, it was his first multi-goal game since he recorded a hat trick against Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2008.
With a 3-0 lead, things were certainly going Florida's way. The fun times wouldn't last, however, as the Sabres were strong from the start of the second period until its end. Buffalo jumped all over the Panthers, outshooting Florida 20-2 in the process. Defenseman Jordan Leopold – traded from Florida to Pittsburgh last season – put the Sabres on the board 5:44 in on Buffalo's eight shot of the period.
Justin Pominville added a power play less than three minutes later to pull Buffalo within one before Leopold got his second of the night by whipping a shot past Vokoun.
Florida looked better in the third – it would have been hard not too – getting off three quick shots before Dmitry Kulikov went to the box for high sticking. The Sabres had three good chances at scoring the go-ahead goal but failed to do so.
“Vokoun was unreal back there and gave us a chance to win,'' Weaver said of his goalie who made 45 saves. “We didn't play a great second period, but this showed a lot about our team. We're coming together and had a killer instinct in the third. This was a great team win for us.''
Higgins led the Panthers with five shots in Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Penguins, yet he failed to score – a trend the Panthers hope ended Thursday in Buffalo. Higgins had three goals on 72 shots (four percent) entering Thursday's game.
Yet he's been getting plenty of scoring chances around the net. DeBoer says he'll get his goals if he keeps that up. In the five games since coming back from a staph infection, Higgins has two goals and three assists.
“I like the way he's playing,'' DeBoer said. “The challenge for him is to keep his job on the first line and keep playing those kind of minutes. As long as he's creating chances, that's all you can ask. You can't coach guys to finish. When I get concerned about players, it's when they are not creating chances. He's done it before. He's been a 20-goal scorer in the past.''
Said Higgins: “I'm just glad I got this in a win. If you get two goals and lose, it's a bittersweet moment for sure.''
-- The statisticians in Pittsburgh must have felt bad for the Panthers on Wednesday night as Florida was credited for zero turnovers – despite having multiple miscues with the puck – in the 5-2 loss to the Penguins. The hometown Penguins were charged with 10 turnovers.
“You guys are looking for silver linings from that game,'' DeBoer joked when asked about the obvious disparity. “There weren't any for me.''
-- A number of players skipped out on Florida's flight back to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday night, opting instead to travel to nearby areas for Christmas. DeBoer was not one of those as the native of Canada will celebrate his third Christmas in South Florida.
“I guess I'm getting used to it,'' DeBoer said of his green Christmas. “When I come up here, I get the flu. I'm looking forward to getting back to the south.''
Buffaloed Again: Florida Panthers Beat Sabres 4-3
PANTHERS 4, SABRES 3