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Under lock and key Victory clinches top seed in East

Make room in the rafters. The Buffalo Sabres will be adding two banners to the ceiling of HSBC Arena.
Their focus now is on making it three.

The Sabres played their finest game in months Tuesday, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1, in Mellon Arena. The victory clinched the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference titles for the Sabres with three games left in the regular season.

"It's a pretty big accomplishment," co-captain Daniel Briere said. "We played hard all year. We made a lot of sacrifices to get to where we are today, so we're definitely happy about it.
"But at the same time, it's not our ultimate goal. It's not what we've based our season around. Everybody knows what we're going for [the Stanley Cup]. That's why we're happy about it, but we don't want to get overly excited."
The Sabres' dressing room was smile-filled but subdued, despite the team accomplishing something it hadn't done in 27 years. The conference title is the first for the Sabres since they won the Prince of Wales Conference in 1979-80. The division title is the first since 1996-97, the year before coach Lindy Ruff took over the team.

More important, the Sabres are guaranteed home-ice advantage through at least the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Sabres are one point behind Detroit in the race for home ice in the Cup finals.

"It's something the guys should be proud of," Ruff said. "We set some lofty goals. To secure home ice is a heck of an accomplishment."

The Sabres achieved the milestones in Mellon Arena, where they have rarely partied in the recent years. The Sabres entered the game just 3-12-6 in the Steel City since 1996-97, but they were solid from beginning to end.

Dmitri Kalinin and Derek Roy sandwiched Mark Recchi's goal to stake the Sabres to a 2-1 lead after two periods. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville struck 66 seconds apart early in the third to put the Penguins away. Vanek's goal was his 40th of the season.

"Forty goals in your second year and to be [plus-42] at the same time, that's a pretty special place," Ruff said of Vanek, who missed the final 13 1/2 minutes with back spasms. "Thomas is OK. . . . I wouldn't anticipate him missing any time."

It wasn't the busiest night for Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, but it was monumental. He made 22 stops -- the best was a third-period glove save on star Sidney Crosby -- to win his 38th game of the season, tying the team record set by Don Edwards in 1977-78.

"We've got to have a lot of fun with it," Miller said. "These guys have helped me a lot along the way. We help each other out, and it feels good to accomplish something."

The Sabres did extremely well in two areas they have been focusing on lately: They committed just two giveaways, and their penalty killers thwarted all eight attempts by the Penguins. Pittsburgh was held without a shot during a five-on-three in the second period.

"We did a good job of pushing them to do things they really didn't want to do," Miller said. "When it came down to entries, we did a great job pressuring them. They had a lot of trouble getting in the zone for most of the night. When they did get in the zone, we were battling pretty hard."

The Sabres opened the scoring with 9:01 left in the first when Kalinin one-timed a carom off the left boards. The puck rang off the far post and rattled into the net behind goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Pittsburgh evened things 62 seconds later on a goal that went to the replay booth. Recchi crashed the net to get a fluttering rebound Miller had lost sight of, and the Penguins forward pushed the puck in with his right skate while coming to a stop.

It took the Sabres just 2:10 of the second period to make the score 2-1. Fleury made a great pad save on Vanek's cross-ice pass to Drew Stafford, but Roy got the rebound and dumped it in. Vanek and Pominville crashed the net in the opening 5 1/2 minutes of the third period to start the banner-clinching countdown.

"In a marathon of a long season, it's nice to win the division and win the conference," co-captain Chris Drury said, "but obviously we've got our sights set a little higher."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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Sabres 4, Penguins 1

Slap shots: The Sabres clinch the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference titles ... Miller wins his 38th game to tie franchise record ... Vanek hits 40-goal mark.

Fast fact: The Sabres are one goal from reaching 300 for the 10th time in team history.

Next game: Boston Bruins, 7 p.m. Thursday in HSBC Arena.

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