If the Buffalo Sabres are to become more than a one-month wonder in the NHL, they will need to start taking advantage of games against lesser teams, particularly the Florida Panthers.
Losing Jack Eichel to injury made that obstacle more challenging, but the Sabres finally broke through Thursday night in KeyBank Center.
Jeff Skinner scored twice, including a much-needed insurance goal with 3:46 left in regulation, in a 4-3 win over the Panthers. The Sabres, now 22-13-6 with 50 points, are three wins away from matching their total from all of last season and still have 41 regular-season games to play.
The victory snapped a three game winless streak. Buffalo had only four regulation wins in its previous 15 games. Linus Ullmark made 35 saves to improve to 9-1-3 this season, and the Sabres finally bested Florida goalie Roberto Luongo despite being outshot by the Panthers, 38-33.
Florida, 17-16-6, remained in sixth place in the Atlantic Division. Skinner scored his 27th and 28th goals of the season — three more than he had last season — including one to open the scoring. Tage Thompson and Sam Reinhart also scored, the latter of whom gave the Sabres a 3-1 lead 1:20 into the third.
Frank Vatrano, Mike Hoffman and Aleksander Barkov scored for Florida. Barkov scored with 1:29 left in regulation to cut the deficit to one.
Eichel update: Eichel will miss at least one more game with an upper-body injury, according to Sabres coach Phil Housley.
Opening salvo: Skinner broke a scoreless tie when he grabbed a puck near the right-wing boards, skated toward the slot, stick-handled around Panthers winger Denis Malgin and beat Luongo with a high wrist shot 4:42 into the first.
Another milestone: With a goal and an assist, Reinhart has 37 points, including 28 assists, in his last 33 games. He has also set a new career high with 31 assists for the season.
Breakthrough: Thompson received praise from Housley recently for his improved play and that finally resulted in a goal when the 21-year-old winger beat Luongo with a shot from the right circle 7:15 into the first.
It was Thompson's first goal in 15 games, and Vladimir Sobotka recorded his first point in 19 games.
Tough break: The Panthers tied it when Vatrano beat Ullmark with a wrist shot during a 2-on-1 rush 13:42 into the second period. Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian was furious because the play began when Rasmus Dahlin was interfered with by Keith Yandle near the opposing blue line, which led to the odd-man rush.
Close calls: Despite being outshot 13-11 in the second period, the Sabres had seven scoring chances. Kyle Okposo hit the far post in the final minute, Conor Sheary was stopped during a break-in on a shot from the bottom of the right faceoff circle and Evan Rodrigues fell during a 2-on-1 with Skinner.
Center shuffle: Eichel's absence forced Housley to elevate Rodrigues to the first line, but Rodrigues continued his role on the penalty kill. That gave Casey Mittelstadt an opportunity to skate with Skinner and Reinhart, albeit for only a few shifts. Still, Mittelstadt received little ice time, including 5:59 through two periods.
Streak ends: This was the Sabres' first victory over the Panthers since March 27, 2017, when Buffalo earned a 4-2 victory in KeyBank Center.
Special teams: By allowing one power-play goal, the Sabres' penalty kill is now 34-for-37 over the past 13 games, despite having played the past three without Zemgus Girgensons. On the other hand, their power play is 3-for-22 over the past eight games.
The lineup: With Eichel out, Remi Elie was in the lineup again and skated on the fourth line with Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville. Defensemen Matt Hunwick and Nathan Beaulieu were healthy scratches, while Lawrence Pilut was back in the lineup and skated alongside Bogosian.
Next: The Sabres return to practice Friday in KeyBank Center before leaving for Boston, where they will face the Bruins on Saturday night at 7:05 p.m.