BUFFALO, N.Y. - In the midst of a tightly contested playoff race, Drew Stafford and the Buffalo Sabres weren't going to make the same mistake twice.
Rather than nursing a two-goal third-period lead as they did in what ended up an overtime loss to Nashville last weekend, Stafford provided an insurance goal to cap a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Friday night. Stafford's second goal of the game came 13 seconds after Jordan Leopold scored on the power play to essentially take the life out of the Panthers.
"Yeah, that was huge," said Stafford, who added an assist. "We don't want to back down."
Add in Ryan Miller's splendid 22-save effort, and the eighth-place Sabres maintained their three-point lead over the Carolina Hurricanes, while also inching within two points of the idle New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference.
Jason Pominville added a goal and assist in helping Buffalo win back-to-back games for the first time in three weeks and mathematically eliminate the Panthers from playoff contention with two weeks left in the season.
"Once you get that one goal, the crowd gets into it and the momentum shifts," Pominville said. "And then we got another one off the bat, and the building kind of exploded. It's a fun building to play in when it gets like that."
Despite their win-one, lose-one inconsistencies of late, the Sabres are 10-3-3 in their past 16 games.
Sergei Samsonov and Evgeny Dadonov scored for Florida, which will miss the playoffs for a 10th straight season. The Panthers dropped to 3-8-3 in their past 14 games, and are winless in their last five on the road (0-4-1).
"It's been hurting for a while," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said of being eliminated. "You get numb to that pain."
And it was little consolation for the Panthers that they finally scored after being shut out in its past two games.
"We played hard, but it's just where we are right now," goalie Tomas Vokoun said. "We just lost to a better team."
The Panthers also avoided a scare after forward David Booth was struck in the throat by a puck in the first period and was taken to a Buffalo hospital for precautionary reasons. Shortly after the game, the Panthers announced Booth was cleared to join the team for its flight to Pittsburgh.
Booth was hurt with 2:31 left in the first period, when he was struck by Buffalo defenceman Tyler Myers' dump-in along the boards.
With the game tied at one, Stafford scored the go-ahead goal 2:33 into the second period to complete a nifty three-way passing play. After gaining the Panthers zone, Stafford fed Tyler Ennis, who then dropped a pass to Brad Boyes, who drove to the left corner before sending a pass in front where Stafford redirected just inside the far post.
The Sabres then broke the game open midway through the third. Pominville's shot from the blue line was redirected by Leopold. The crowd was still buzzing Stafford made it 4-1 by converting a rebound after Vokoun stopped Tyler Ennis' hard shot from the circle.
"It was really important how we responded to the third goal by going out and going after it again," Miller said. "It could be one of those games that gets away from you because you start to get impatient and you start to get lulled to sleep. For the most part we played our game."
Miller was on top of his game. After allowing Samsonov's goal 4:01 in, Miller stopped 20 shots before allowing Dadonov to score a consolation goal with three seconds left.
Miller was particularly sharp late in the second period when the Panthers had four solid scoring chances in final three minutes. First he got enough of a piece of Stephen Weiss' shot from the blue line to steer it just wide of the right post. Some 30 seconds later, Miller got across to left to lunge out and snag Dmitry Kulikov, who was set up alone in the right circle. Miller also kicked out his right pad to foil Ryan Carter, who was set up in front.
NOTES: The Panthers recalled LW Patrick Rissmiller from American Hockey League Rochester to fill in after C Shawn Matthias and RW Jack Skille were scratched. Both players had just returned this week after missing extensive stretches with ankle injuries. ... The Sabres opened 18th of an NHL-high 22 sets of games on consecutive nights. They're back at home Saturday against New Jersey. Of their eight remaining games, four are at home, and four on the road. ... Samsonov's goal 4:01 into the game ended the Panthers' scoring drought at 135:35.