The Buffalo Sabres headed into Saturday's game tied for second in penalty killing. Apparently, that ranking wasn't good enough. So after a 6-for-6 performance, they have the NHL's top short-handed unit and a two-game winning streak to boot.
The Sabres failed to let their steady march to the box ruin their night, killing every chance en route to a 3-1 victory over the Florida Panthers. The showing pushed Buffalo (86.1 percent) past St. Louis (85.9) and Boston (85.8) into the No. 1 short-handed ranking.
"We did really well on those penalty-kill situations," said goaltender Ryan Miller, who stopped 31 shots. "We didn't give them a lot, and I think they were frustrated."
It was the Sabres' best short-handed night since they went 6 for 6 against Carolina on March 5. They meet the Hurricanes again at 5 p.m. today in the RBC Center in Raleigh.
"It seemed like every time I went on the ice it was the PK," left wing Jochen Hecht said. "They had their fair chance on the power plays, and we proved why we're the best in the league."
The Sabres, who broke out of a funk in first periods with three goals Thursday in Tampa Bay, busted out of the BankAtlantic Center dressing room again Saturday. They outshot the Panthers, 18-6, in the opening 20
minutes and took a 1-0 lead.
Hecht, the Sabres' longtime master of scoring at bad angles, added another one to his resume. The left winger shot from along the goal line just after a Florida penalty expired. Tomas Vokoun leaned forward, creating space between his back and the goal line, and the puck ricocheted in off the goaltender with 6:34 left.
Though Florida took just six shots, two were breakaways thwarted by Miller. He stoned fellow Michigan State product David Booth midway through with a pad save. Miller forced Radek Dvorak to shoot wide with just 14 seconds remaining.
The slow start by the Panthers forced Vokoun to the bench after he allowed another bank shot with 2:54 gone in the second.
Adam Mair spun and shot from the left side, and Vokoun followed the wide shot. The puck caromed to a waiting Patrick Kaleta on the right side, and the winger bounced the puck in off Vokoun as the netminder scrambled across the crease.
"That's what we've been preaching all season is to get pucks to the net," Kaleta said. "You look around the league and there's a pretty goal here or there, but most goals now are just garbage goals, just getting it to the net and poking away."
Panthers coach Peter DeBoer had seen enough, summoning Vokoun and sending in Scott Clemmensen with his team getting outshot, 19-7.
The momentum changed as the Sabres marched to the penalty box. Buffalo was whistled for three straight infractions, allowing Florida to take 17 of the period's 24 shots. One went in.
Kamil Kreps cut to the front for a shot, and 6-foot-5 Byron Bitz withstood a couple of whacks from Andrej Sekera to deposit the rebound with 8:56 left.
Mike Grier finally gave the Sabres breathing room and a 3-1 lead with 6:11 remaining in the game. Matt Ellis' shot created a goalmouth scramble, with Clemmensen and two Panthers searching for the puck. It squirted past all of them, leaving Grier with a tap-in.
The Sabres improved to 2-1-1 on their five-game road trip that ends with today's visit to North Carolina.
"We're going to have to use everybody," coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's going to have to be a four-line game. It's going to have to be a game where you don't beat yourself. . . . It's a tough turnaround, but we've done it before."
Kaleta made a few enemies prior to his goal. He got tangled with Nathan Horton late in the first period, and the Panthers' right winger dropped his gloves. Kaleta began skating away, but Horton grabbed him and threw four punches.
Kaleta skated back to his bench, getting an earful from Panthers along the way, while Horton went to the box with a roughing double-minor.
"I played him in juniors my first year in the league, when I was running around a little bit," Kaleta said with a grin, "so we know each other."
>Sabres 3, Panthers 1
Slapshots: Sabres win second straight, move to 2-1-1 on road trip. ... Penalty killers have perfect night,
stopping all six power plays by Panthers. ... Grier gives Sabres breathing room with first goal in 24 games.
Fast fact: The Sabres improved to 24-0-0 when leading after two periods.
Next: at Carolina Hurricanes, 5 p.m. today in RBC Center.