SUNRISE, Fla. – Shootouts have been rare for the Buffalo Sabres. Through their opening 20 games, they participated in just one. So at the end of practice Wednesday, interim coach Ron Rolston sent the players through an extended breakaway challenge designed to hone the skills of shooters and goaltenders.
The session paid immediate dividends.
The Sabres shook off Florida’s tying goal with just 86 seconds left to dominate the shootout and earn a 4-3 victory over the Panthers on Thursday night. The Sabres, who won in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, earned a sweep of their Sunshine State opponents and won consecutive games for just the third time this year.
“We could have obviously been in a pretty bad mood here in this dressing room if we gave that extra point away, but we stuck with it,” said left wing Steve Ott, who had two assists. “Our shootout guys did a heck of a job.”
Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville beat Florida goaltender Jose Theodore in the breakaway session, while Sabres netminder Ryan Miller (40 saves) turned aside attempts by Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller to give Buffalo the victory.
“We obviously had two really good finishes on that, and it was two key players for us making the difference,” said Rolston, whose split-squad practice the previous day featured a three-round relay challenge in which each side needed to deposit three pucks into the opposing net to earn a victory.
The Sabres nearly didn’t need the extra session Thursday in BB&T Center. They had a rare third-period lead but let it slip away. The Panthers totaled 30 shots during the second and third periods, but Miller rallied from a shaky start to keep Buffalo ahead.
Old friend Brian Campbell finally solved the goaltender with 1:26 to go.
With a faceoff in the Buffalo zone, the Panthers called timeout to catch their breath and set up a play. They won the draw back to Campbell, and the longtime Buffalo defenseman fired a rocket from the point that sailed between center Cody Hodgson and defenseman Andrej Sekera before flying into the top corner on Miller’s stick side.
The Florida faithful among the 15,672 fans roared.
“I liked how the guys after we gave up the third one there were able to bounce back and come out and get the extra point in the game,” Rolston said. “We’re showing more bounceback as a team, and that’s just a mind-set that we have to continue to get in.”
Buffalo built its 3-2 lead in the first period by checking off multiple items on its to-do list. The Sabres got secondary scoring in the form of two goals by Nathan Gerbe. Their power play, in a 2-for-47 slump during the previous 13 games, went 1 for 1 with a goal by Tyler Ennis.
“It was a good first period,” Ott said. “Gerbs had two phenomenal goals, and our power play got a huge one. That was definitely really nice. It was something that we needed.”
The Sabres exited the first period with a lead for only the fifth time in 21 games. They carried an advantage into the third period for only the second time.
The Sabres and Panthers have had major scoring problems this season. Buffalo entered the night ranked 22nd at 2.42 goals per game, while the Panthers were 21st at 2.47.
The team’s defenses have been even worse. The Panthers were dead last after allowing 3.63 goals per outing, while the Sabres were 27th at 3.2.
The struggling offenses picked apart the porous defenses in a hurry, combining for five goals in the opening period. Gerbe, kept out of the goal column during his first 16 games, opened the scoring and Ennis doubled the lead.
The Panthers answered with two goals in 56 seconds to tie the game, but Gerbe ended starting goalie Scott Clemmensen’s night with 3:14 left in the first. Gerbe abused defenseman Erik Gudbranson and shot over Clemmensen’s shoulder while falling.
“We want to go out and attack teams,” said Gerbe, whose team hosts New Jersey at 3 p.m. Saturday in First Niagara Center. “We never want to sit back and wait for something to happen. We’ve got to make it happen. That’s what the good teams do. They don’t just sit around and wait. You’ve got to be aggressive.
“We missed out on a lot of points, but now it’s time to make them up.”