BUFFALO, N.Y. – After the Buffalo Sabres paid tribute to their 40-year history, Nathan Gerbe and Thomas Vanek teamed up to secure their immediate future by clinching a playoff berth.
Gerbe scored a highlight reel spin-around goal midway through the third period, and Vanek scored 1:16 into overtime to cap a two-goal comeback in a 4-3 victory over the slumping Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night.
The victory secured the Sabres (42-29-10) at least seventh place in the Eastern Conference entering the playoffs next week. And the win came in their home season finale, which began with a pregame ceremony in which about 80 former Buffalo players were introduced to create an electric atmosphere.
“The guys wanted it bad tonight,” said Vanek, who added two assists. “It was loud and it’s exciting. We put a lot of work in and this one feels better than the other ones.”
That’s because this victory finally capped what’s been a remarkable second-half surge by a team that was as many as 10 points out of contention in mid-January. Buffalo improved to 28-11-6 since Dec. 28, and is 15-4-4 since Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula completed the purchase of the franchise in February.
And Gerbe’s second goal, which tied the game at three to eventually secure the Sabres a playoff-clinching point, proved breathtaking.
Driving up the right wing, Gerbe came to a skidding stop inside the right circle and then spun around while in one motion lifting a blind backhander at the net that sneaked in through a crowd and just inside the left post.
It was enough to impress former Sabres captain Pat LaFontaine, who scored some big goals himself in Buffalo.
“I don’t know if it was the velocity, but it was the quickness with how he did it,” LaFontaine said. “That was pretty special. That’s a big goal.”
The Flyers are heading into the playoffs in a funk, dropping to 0-3-2 over their last five, the team’s longest winless skid of the season. Philadelphia (46-23-12) has yet to clinch the Atlantic Division title and can no longer catch Washington for top spot in the East.
With 104 points, the Flyers are tied with Pittsburgh atop the Atlantic. Both teams have one game left, though the Flyers have the tiebreaker edge on their cross-state rivals.
“It’s so frustrating,” Flyers forward Danny Briere said. “We’re not looking at positioning as much as trying to come up rolling to start the playoffs.”
Briere and Scott Hartnell had a goal and assist, and Kris Versteeg also scored for Philadelphia, which blew a two-period lead for only the sixth time this season (37-1-5).
Jason Pominville also scored for Buffalo, while Ryan Miller earned the win by stopping all eight shots he faced after replacing Jhonas Enroth to start the third period. It was Miller’s first appearance after missing four games since taking a shot off the collarbone against Toronto on March 29.
Miller’s presence provided the Sabres the boost coach Lindy Ruff was looking for after the Flyers scored twice in a 39-second span to take a 3-2 lead midway through the second period.
The Sabres took no chances in securing at least a tie. Getting the puck with 40 seconds left, Buffalo players controlled it in their own zone with the Flyers hanging back at their blue line. Seeing what was happening, the crowd got up and provided Buffalo a standing ovation until the final buzzer sounded.
Vanek then proceeded to seal the victory. Bursting up the middle, he split the Flyers defence and cut in on net to flip a backhander past Sergei Bobrovsky.
Sabres players then gathered at centre and saluted the crowd, before taking off their jerseys to distribute them to contest-winning fans.
“The atmosphere was tremendous,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I told the players it was going to be like a playoff game. … I told them to just have fun. Go out and play.”
Gerbe had one of the biggest smiles afterward.
“To get in the playoffs is a great feeling,” said Gerbe, who has scored 15 of his 16 goals this season in the past 37 games.
And it wasn’t lost on him that the Sabres could well face the Flyers in the first round next week.
“They wanted to knock us out of the playoffs,” Gerbe said. “For us, we knew this was important. We knew it would be a battle, and we knew it was going to be a playoff atmosphere.”
NOTES: Sabres D Andrej Sekera did not play and is listed day to day with an undisclosed upper-body injury. … Versteeg, who tied the game at 2 in the second period, scored the Flyers 13 short-handed goal of the season, tying Pittsburgh for second most in the NHL. … Briere was playing his first game after missing two with a lower-body injury. … Both teams close their regular seasons Saturday, with the Flyers hosting the Islanders and the Sabres playing at Columbus. … In a vote conducted by Sabres players, Miller was selected the team’s MVP, C Tyler Ennis rookie of the year and C Cody McCormick unsung hero.