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HASEK BACK IN TOP FORM, BLANKS PANTHERS THREE-GAME SKID ENDS AS GOALIE MAKES 28 SAVES

Friday night's 3-0 victory over the Florida Panthers saw the Buffalo Sabers put together elements that a hockey team needs to be successful -- power-play scoring, good penalty killing and solid defense.

The most important ingredient, though, was the return of goaltender Dominik Hasek.

After missing three games, all Buffalo defeats, and the last two periods of another with a strained rotator cuff, Hasek returned to Buffalo lineup Friday night at Memorial Auditorium and registered his second shutout of the season in a 28-save performance.

And the other Sabres responded with one of their most solid efforts in recent weeks as they snapped their three-game losing streak before a sellout crowd of 16,230.

"He did what he always does. He gave us a chance to win," said Sabres coach John Muckler.

Pat LaFontaine scored a first-period power play goal before Dave Hannan and Alexander Mogilny added second period goals for Buffalo, which moved two points past the Panthers and into a tie for sixth place overall in the Eastern Conference of the NHL with 29 points.

Hannan's unassisted goal came when the Sabres were short-handed with LaFontaine serving a double minor for high-sticking Bill Lindsay of the Panthers.

Hasek played like he hadn't missed any time. He was sharp right from the first minute when he was tested by the Panthers' Rob Nedermayer and stayed that way to the last minute when he handled Mike Hough's hard shot from the left circle.

Hasek complained of getting a little tired, but otherwise had no problems. "Even though I thought it was an easy game for me, I was tired," Hasek said. "My shoulder is in great shape. I don't even know which one was injured."

With three losses behind them and the next two games against the top two Eastern Conference teams, Philadelphia and Quebec, the Sabres were desperate for a victory.

"I know every game is important, but Florida you must win at home," Hasek said.

The victory was Hasek's 10th of the season and lowered his goals against average to 1.83 from 1.93.

Hasek and the Sabres managed to survive penalty trouble in the third period to get the shutout against coach Roger Neilson's Panthers.

The problem arose when Mogilny picked up a high-sticking minor during a 5-minute high-sticking major against Matthew Barnaby.

Buffalo was short-handed for 2:57, and was two-men short for a minute of that span. Despite it all, Florida got only one shot.

The Sabres were helped when Dave Lowry of the Panthers took a hooking penalty negating the last 1:04 of the Florida power play.

Hasek, Hannan and Buffalo defenseman Richard Smehlik, who assisted on two goals, were the game's three stars.

It was an errant shot by Smehlik that set up the LaFontaine goal on the power play in the first period. Smehlik's shot from the point ricocheted off the end boards to LaFontaine at the side of the Florida net. LaFontaine lifted the puck over John Vanbiesbrouck at 14:42 to make it 1-0.

Hannan's short-handed goal, Buffalo's fourth of the season, was the backbreaker.

"When you do that it can really lift our team" said Hannan, who credited his penalty-killing partner Wayne Presley for forcing the soft pass to the middle by Gord Murphy that he picked off.

Hannan beat Vanbiesbrouck high to the glove side from about 15 feet.

"I knew I had plenty of time to shoot," Hannan said. "I had been hitting that spot in practice all week so I decided to try it again."

Mogilny made it 3-0 with 4:12 left in the second period with his 12th of the season. Smehlik went in deep and swept the puck toward the net as he dived to the ice and Mogilny pushed it past Vanbiesbrouck.

Peter Ambroziak, who skated in place of the injured Craig Simpson as the left wing on the line with LaFontaine and Mogilny, got the second assist on the goal, his first NHL point.

"It felt great," said Ambroziak, who played only 22 games at Rochester last season before suffering a shoulder injury that required two operations to repair and a lengthy rehabilitation period last summer.

The game wasn't two minutes old before the Sabres, already missing four injured players, got yet another scare. Mogilny was taken to the dressing room favoring his left shoulder after his hit in the corner on Florida defenseman Geoff Smith after only 1:49 had been played.

However, with 12:33 left in the period, Mogilny returned and skated the next shift.

"That was kind of upsetting," Muckler said. "The first thing I thought was a separation."

Muckler said that Mogilny suffered a pinched nerve.

Simpson, whose chronic lower back problem acted up, was out of the lineup. The veteran left wing had played in 22 of the first 27 games. He played only 22 of the 84 games on last year's schedule because of back problems.

Also missing Friday was defenseman Craig Muni, who left the team to attend the funeral of his stepmother in Toronto. He is expected to be back for Sunday night's game at Philadelphia.

With Muni out, it presented Ken Sutton with a chance to return to the lineup for the first time since he suffered a broken finger Feb. 11 against the New York Islanders. It was only the seventh game appearance of the season for the 25-year-old defenseman.

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