BUFFALO, N.Y. – Their character questioned, their playoff hopes dwindling and facing a two-goal deficit, Jason Pominville and the Buffalo Sabres showed they’ve still got some fight left in them.
Pominville had a goal and two assists in a 2:07 span of the third period in the Sabres’ 5-3 comeback victory over the suddenly slumping Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.
“We had to be desperate. This is that time of year,” Pominville said. “For us to dig deep and get a win, it was a game we had to win, there was no tomorrow.”
Tim Connolly, who capped the surge with the go-ahead goal, Clarke MacArthur, Craig Rivet and Maxim Afinogenov also scored for Buffalo, which snapped an 0-3-1 skid and won for only the second time in eight games (2-5-1).
With 78 points and nine games left, Buffalo remains in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, but moved within five points of eighth-place Montreal.
The ninth-place Panthers not only squandered a two-goal lead, but also an opportunity to move into a tie with idle Montreal.
Brett McLean had a goal and assist, and Richard Zednik and Michael Frolik also scored for Florida, 1-4-3 in its past eight games.
“I don’t have an answer,” Panthers defenceman Bryan McCabe said. “Obviously, we picked a bad time of the year to start blowing leads. We have to find a way to remedy that.”
There’s even better news for the Sabres on the horizon.
Starting goalie Ryan Miller is scheduled to return to face Toronto on Friday night after missing 13 games with sprained left ankle.
Miller wasn’t needed against Florida.
Third-stringer Mikael Tellqvist made 30 saves to earn his first win in only his second start for Buffalo since being acquired in a trade with Phoenix earlier this month.
Though new to Buffalo, Tellqvist was notably stung by the criticism the Sabres have faced during a their skid.
“Everybody’s been writing us off and telling us we have no character in this room and blah, blah, blah,” Tellqvist said, referring to the Sabres’ four-goal third period.
“This just shows everybody that we really want to win.”
The momentum distinctly changed shortly after Frolik scored a fluke goal – he broke his stick on his shot and the puck went in off Sabres defender Henrik Tallinder – to put Florida up 3-1 early in the third period.
Back came the Sabres.
Pominville deflected in Tallinder’s point shot to cut it to 3-2 at the 6:14 mark. MacArthur tied it 51 seconds later, blasting a shot through the legs of Tomas Vokoun.
Connolly then scored a power-play goal at the 8:21 mark, when his shot from the left point deflected in off the stick of Panthers’ defenceman Jay Bouwmeester and past Vokoun.
Afinogenov then added an empty-net goal in the final minute.
Panthers coach Peter DeBoer squarely placed the blame on Vokoun.
“We need a big save at a critical time in the third period to win a game. I don’t think we’ve gotten one lately,” DeBoer said.
“You can’t let (the loss) be devastating. The goalie’s got to close the door when you’re in that situation. You know what? He didn’t.”
Vokoun finished with 40 saves while making his 11th straight start. It marked the seventh time – and fourth straight – the goalie has faced 30 or more shots during that stretch.
Vokoun was nearly lost for words to describe the meltdown.
“This is a tough loss for us. I’m still trying to realize what happened,” he said.
Zednik experienced a scary moment five minutes into the third period when teammate Cory Stillman’s shot from left circle sailed over the net and struck Zednik in the right side of his face shield.
Zednik was cut across the nose by the force of the shot and immediately skated to the bench, where he was escorted to the locker room.
Zednik did not require stitches, and returned to the bench a few minutes later.
The play eerily occurred near the same spot in the right corner of the Buffalo zone, where Zednik sustained a gruesome neck injury, when his throat was cut during a collision with former teammate Olli Jokinen on Feb. 10, 2008.
Notes: Connolly snapped a seven-game goal drought. … After scoring a goal on four power-play chances in a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Monday, the Panthers went 0-for-2 against Buffalo. They have not scored power-play goals in consecutive games since Feb. 15-17. … The Panthers opened a three-game trip in which they’ll play three games in four days, concluding at Dallas on Saturday.