Florida Panthers center John Madden (10) scores a goal against Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (30) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 17, 2012, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
SUNRISE, Fla. - Dmitry Kulikov had a rough start and a smooth finish in his first game back for the Florida Panthers.
Kulikov returned from a knee injury after missing 23 games and scored the winning shootout goal as the Panthers beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 on Saturday night.
"Shootout winner? I'll take it any day," Kulikov said.
John Madden and Mikael Samuelsson scored in regulation for the Panthers. Jose Theodore made 24 saves.
Derek Roy and Tyler Ennis scored goals for the Sabres, and Ryan Miller stopped 15 shots.
Florida's Wojtek Wolski and Buffalo's Ennis each scored in the second round of the shootout. Kulikov backhanded in his goal in the seventh round to give Florida the win.
"To be honest, it was pretty rough out there," he said. "I didn't feel very good in the first period. It felt like guys were just flying around and I was just standing there. It got better, I picked up the tempo a bit. I feel pretty good about myself today."
It was only the third time the defenceman has been in a shootout this season, but Panthers coach Kevin Dineen didn't have any doubts.
"He was a little deep in the batting order," he said, "but sometimes you're looking for a little swagger and Kuli is a cool cat, not a whole lot ruffles him."
The Panthers won their fourth straight and notched their longest winning streak since a seven-game run March 2-16, 2008, and tied the franchise record with five consecutive home wins. The Panthers are five points ahead of Washington in the Southeast Division.
Neither team got off a shot in the overtime. The Panthers only had one shot in the third period and had a season-low 17 shots.
Buffalo suffered its second consecutive shootout loss.
"Any point you lose right now is a lot. If it was a half a point it would be a lot," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's disappointing. The points in the shootout are big points. I picked one good shooter and six bad ones tonight."
Trailing 2-1, Buffalo tied it at 2 in the second on Roy's power-play goal. A shot by Jason Pominville was blocked by Theodore, but the puck bounced out to Roy in the slot and his slap shot beat Theodore on the stick side at 9:41.
Both teams scored on their first shot of the game.
The Sabres scored 1:15 in when Drew Stafford brought the puck along the side boards to the left circle where he backhanded a pass to Ennis in front. His wrist shot went between Theodore's pads to make it 1-0. Ennis has seven goals and 15 points in his last 16 games.
The Panthers also scored on their first shot, except it didn't come until 2:45 left in the first. Samuelsson's slap shot from the top of the right circle during a power play tied it at 1.
The Panthers scored on their second shot of the game 38 seconds later when Madden's snap shot from the left circle got past Miller to make it 2-1. It was Madden's second goal in as many games after going scoreless in his first 19 games with the Panthers.
"Right time to do it. We're starting to hit our stride," Madden said.
The Sabres have given up late goals in their past two games against Colorado and Montreal to send each game into overtime. They lost to Colorado in a shootout, but beat Montreal in overtime.
"We gave away a point (against Colorado) and felt like we gave one away tonight, so it's basically a loss," Miller said. "We're not making up any ground here."
Notes: Buffalo's Tyler Myers served the second of a three-game suspension for a hit against Montreal forward Scott Gomez on March 12. ... D Andrej Sekera returned after missing five games with pneumonia. ... Florida LW Tomas Fleischmann set a career high for most points in a season with 52 (22-30-52). ... Florida F Kris Versteeg, tied with Tomas Fleischmann for the team lead in goals (22), returned to the lineup after missing nine games with a hip injury.