BUFFALO, N.Y. - Despite a big win over a team Buffalo is battling with in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Sabres forward Thomas Vanek knows there are plenty of games left before the final post-season seedings are decided.
"There's still lots of points out there," Vanek said after the Sabres' 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night. "We just need to get more of them."
Buffalo is 10th in the Eastern Conference, two points behind ninth-place Florida and three behind Carolina and the New York Rangers.
"It was the biggest game of the year," captain Craig Rivet said. "We needed this game to get us back in it. We still have a ways to go but we're going to keep pushing."
Patrick Lalime made 30 saves in his eighth straight start, and improved to 3-4-1 since taking over for injured starter Ryan Miller.
Jaroslav Spacek had a goal and assist, and Daniel Paille and Vanek also scored for the Sabres, who won their third straight at home and snapped a two-game overall losing streak.
The Sabres helped preserve the much-needed win by killing off a two-man Florida advantage for 1:07 midway through the third period. Buffalo allowed just one shot to get through to Lalime, and blocked three others.
"That gave us an extra boost for the final seven or eight minutes," Vanek said. "It was a huge kill for us."
And doubly disappointing for the Panthers.
"You know you're not going to have a better chance than that," Florida defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. "But there was still time left."
But the Sabres didn't budge, playing a much tighter third period than they did in their last two losses when they were outscored by a 7-2 margin by Ottawa and Philadelphia.
"We were committed to playing strong in our own end," Lalime said. "We were chipping the puck out and making them skate back for it."
Michal Repik scored for Florida, and Tomas Vokoun made 20 saves. The Panthers have lost two straight after winning three of four.
"It's crucial points, especially against a team like Buffalo," Panthers right wing Radek Dvorak said. "Every time you lose a game like this, it's bad for us."
The game marked Florida forward Richard Zednik's return to Buffalo, where he nearly bled to death 13 months ago after severing the carotid artery when he was cut by former teammate Olli Jokinen's skate.
"I thought about it for one second, what happened last year," he said. "Then it was like any other game."
Spacek opened the scoring with his eighth goal three minutes into the game when his wrist shot from the top of the right circle eluded Vokoun.
Repik tied it at 1 with his second at 9:36 before Paille restored Buffalo's lead with a wrist shot from the left circle that deflected off Florida defenceman Nick Boynton's stick late in the period.
Vanek capped the scoring on the power play with his team-leading 34th goal with 2:52 left in regulation. It was his second goal since returning from a broken jaw five games ago.
Notes: Panthers D Bryan McCabe missed his second game after having surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone. He was injured against St. Louis on Saturday. ... Repik was recalled from Rochester of the AHL earlier in the day to help offset the loss of Nathan Horton, who will be out two to four weeks because of sliced tendon in his finger. ... The teams will meet again in two weeks in Buffalo. ... The first period was played penalty-free.