Briere had two goals in regulation and another in the shootout, leading the Buffalo Sabres to a 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night.
“He’s kind of the main guy for them,” Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen said. “You’re always looking to see where he is on the ice. I try to keep one eye on him to see where he goes. He’s very quick. He can do it all.”
The Eastern Conference-leading Sabres, winning for just the fifth time in their last 12 games, scored all three of their regulation goals on the power play. They took the shootout 2-0, with Ales Kotalik scoring the deciding goal.
Miller stopped Slava Kozlov and Marian Hossa in the shootout. Before Tuesday, Kozlov was 7-of-8 going one-on-one against the goalie, while Hossa had an impressive 5-of-7 mark.
Scott Mellanby scored the tying goal for Atlanta with 8:09 left in regulation, but the Sabres knocked off one of their top challengers in the East. Briere took advantage of the wide-open style favoured by both teams.
“There wasn’t too much traffic, a lot less than we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “It was fast and exciting. We played with fire.”
The Thrashers, first in the Southeast Division, dropped 10 points behind Buffalo in the conference standings with their third straight loss. Atlanta went 2-3-1 during a homestand at Philips Arena and now heads off on a six-game road trip, its longest this season.
“We’re disappointed with it,” Mellanby said. “We didn’t come out with a lot of points. No disrespect to the teams we played, but losing twice to Philadelphia – those are points we need. We’ve got to pick it up.”
Miller made 27 saves, including a brilliant stop in the final seconds of overtime. Kozlov swept in on a breakaway and picked out the top right corner, but Miller got enough of his glove on the shot to send it over the crossbar.
In the shootout, he knew what he was up against. Miller blocked Kozlov’s backhander, then turned aside a wrist shot by Hossa.
“I just want to come out and challenge them, shorten their options and maybe they’ll change their mind,” Miller said.
Atlanta dropped to 6-3 in shootouts, ending a streak of five straight wins. Buffalo improved to 8-2 in shootouts, clinching it with a brilliant move by Kotalik, who backed Lehtonen into the net before flipped a backhander over the fallen goalie.
“I decided to do something different,” Kotalik said.
In the opening period, Briere scored the first goal of the night off a rebound, reaching around from behind the net to swipe a rebound out of the air.
Lehtonen was amazed.
“I thought the play was over, and he reached around from behind the net to tap it in there,” the Thrashers goalie said. “That’s one of those goals that’s not going to make me too mad.”
Ilya Kovalchuk tied it for Atlanta 39 seconds later with a slap shot from the left circle.
Briere picked up his 23rd goal of the season with 1:12 left in the second, putting Buffalo ahead 3-2. Andy Sutton whiffed on a clearing attempt, Nathan Paetsch scooped up the puck and passed to Briere all alone at the far post for the one-timer that beat Lehtonen.
The Thrashers, after scoring their first two goals at even strength, finally took advantage of its slumping power-play unit to tie it at 3. Hossa flipped a pass over sliding Buffalo defenceman Toni Lydman and Mellanby whacked it on the fly past a helpless Miller.
Jon Sim gave Atlanta its first lead, scoring off a long pass with about 6½ minutes left in the second period. The Thrashers caught Buffalo in a line change and Jim Slater flipped a long pass into the Sabres’ zone. Sim caught up with the puck near the boards and somehow got it past Miller from a bad angle to make it 2-1.
Thomas Vanek evened it for Buffalo about four minutes later. With Sutton off for hooking, Teppo Numminen pushed ahead a perfect lead pass to Vanek, who slipped between two Atlanta players and whipped a shot over Lehtonen’s right shoulder, just inside the post.
Notes: Atlanta was 7-for-71 on the power play before Mellanby scored. … Miller picked up an assist, his second of the season, on Vanek’s goal. … The Thrashers will begin their road trip with four games out West: Colorado, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. They’ll finish in the East at Ottawa and Carolina. “This is going to be huge for us,” coach Bob Hartley said. “There’s no kidding about that.”