For more than 17 minutes of Saturday's game, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller had nothing to do but check out the creative St. Patrick's Day costumes in the crowd surrounding him.
The Panthers had been pinned back in their own zone and had failed to get off a single shot during that time as they fell behind a goal.
The Panthers made up for their offensive fallacies in a hurry, scoring goals on the first two shots they took
late in the opening period. That was all Miller allowed before the shootout, one Florida won off Dmitry Kulikov's goal in the seventh round, as the Panthers escaped BankAtlantic Center with a 3-2 win to further keep their playoff hopes alive.
Florida didn't do much against Miller yet did enough to win a fourth straight game for the first time since Jacques Martin coached the team way back in 2008. The unlikely – and perhaps undeserved – victory gave the Panthers a five point lead on idle Washington atop the Southeast Division.
“This is the right time to do it. We're starting to hit our stride,'' said John Madden, whose goal on Florida's second shot of the game gave the Panthers a 2-1 lead with 2:07 left in the opening period. “We don't want to limp into the playoffs.''
Buffalo, a team that desperately needed that extra point in the standings, pulled to within two of the Capitals for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Sabres played a desperate brand of hockey as they held the Panthers to just one shot in the entire third period and none in overtime. The Panthers improved to 5-8 in the shootout as Jose Theodore (who stopped 24 shots) gave up just one goal in the shootout. Kulikov scored Florida's second shootout goal after Wojtek Wolski and Theodore stopped Drew Stafford for the win.
“There's no pressure on me, I scored the goal and that's the advantage of going first,'' said Kulikov, who has two shootout game-winners on just three career attempts. “We have confidence that Theodore is going to make that save. .-.-. He's a good goalie.''
The Sabres grabbed an early lead when Tyler Ennis worked in front of Stephen Weiss and knocked in a nice feed from Stafford. The Panthers then watched the Sabres keep the puck in deep as Florida put no offensive pressure on Miller (15 saves).
Late in the second, Florida picked up a power play chance with Mikael Samuelsson driving the Panthers' first shot past Miller with 2:45 left in the period. Madden, who scored his first goal with the Panthers in Thursday's win over Boston, followed suit with the second goal less than a minute later.
“They got a goal right away and after that I knew they would come hard. And they did,'' said Theodore, who has won four straight starts and is 4-0-1 in his past five. “It was a good sound game both ways. You could see both teams really wanted the points – and needed the points.''
The Sabres tied things up on a power play chance of their own as Shawn Matthias was given a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after fighting Mike Weber after the Sabres' defenseman made what was a clean hit on Florida's Tomas Kopecky. With Matthias in the box, Derek Roy fielded the puck in the slot and whipped a shot through.
Florida knew Buffalo was going to come out with everything it had. The Panthers weren't disappointed.
“They had a good push back and really had us on our heels,'' defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. “Our goaltender came up huge and gave us a chance to win.''
BIG NAMES RETURN
As expected, the Panthers welcomed Kris Versteeg (hip) and Dmitry Kulikov back after stints on the injured list. Versteeg, playing with Kopecky and Matthias, missed nine games. Kulikov, who had knee surgery in January, missed 23.
With those those two back, the Panthers scratched Mike Santorelli, Krys Barch and Keaton Ellerby. Dineen said it's not easy making these moves, but, it's nice to have options.
“A guy like Marco Sturm, who I felt played the best game I’ve seen him play in a Panthers uniform, is making those decisions extremely tough,'' Dineen said. “When you get a coveted spot in this lineup, your job is to make sure that the coaches have a tough decision every day in how they’re putting their lineup together every day.”
()Count Sabres coach Lindy Ruff as one impressed with the Panthers. An original assistant coach with the expansion Panthers, Ruff has been the Sabres' coach the past 15 seasons.
“They brought in guys from winning teams, guys who have won the Cup,'' said Ruff, who has been coach of the Sabres ever since leaving the Panthers in 1997. “Their younger guys have been around a winning team all year and it's showing up in their play. I like the way they play, they play a hard game and a hard game to defend. The last few games they've played .''