Panthers-Sabres Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated December 09, 2011
The Florida Panthers' status as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference may be the biggest surprise in the NHL this season. The Buffalo Sabres' struggles were also unexpected, and they're preaching patience to their fan base. The Panthers go for their longest winning streak in almost four years Friday night when they attempt to win back-to-back road games against the Sabres for the first time. Florida (16-8-4) hasn't reached the playoffs since 2000, and the club has finished at the bottom of the Southeast Division each of the last two seasons. That's why it comes as a surprise that the Panthers lead the division by seven points over second-place Washington, the four-time reigning Southeast champion. The Panthers beat the Capitals 5-4 on Monday before further proving they're not a fluke, extending their winning streak to three with Thursday's 2-0 victory at Northeast Division-leading Boston. Florida hasn't won four straight since a seven-game run March 2-16, 2008. "There's always something that gets you going," Jose Theodore said after making 40 saves against the Bruins. "And when you play against the best, you want to raise your game." It's unclear if Theodore will be back in net, but he's 5-1-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average in his last seven starts. He's also won his last two visits to Buffalo behind a 1.50 GAA, including a 24-save performance in a 3-2 win there Oct. 29. The Panthers have 23 losses and three ties in 36 all-time visits. While Florida is emerging as a contender in the East, the Sabres (14-11-2) are trying to remain calm while a slew of injuries and inconsistent play have them dangerously close to the Northeast cellar. They've had eight players - including goaltender Ryan Miller - miss six or more games due to injuries. Buffalo is in the midst of a 2-4-2 stretch, and it blew an early three-goal lead in a 5-4 overtime loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday to open a five-game homestand. Team president Ted Black feels patience is preferable to panic. "The assessment of the team is we're not where we want to be in terms of our record, because we think there are a couple of games that got away from us," Black said. "This is no time to abandon hope." The Sabres have lost six of their last seven at home, surrendering at least four goals in five of those contests. "It's been a problem at home," defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani said. "We need to fix it." Miller figures to be in net again. He made 29 saves before Claude Giroux beat him on a breakaway midway through overtime Wednesday, four days after he stopped 32 shots in a 3-2 victory at Nashville in his return from a concussion. Miller made 33 saves in the Oct. 29 loss to the Panthers after blanking them with 22 stops in a 3-0 road victory nine days prior. Thomas Vanek leads the Sabres with 13 goals, but his tally against the Flyers was only his second in 11 games. The left wing scored three times in the two October meetings with Florida, and has found the net on nine occasions in 12 career home games against the Panthers.
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