By Mike Lipka
Florida (35-27-11) at Buffalo (34-30-8), 7:00 p.m. EST
BUFFALO, New York (AP) -- Still playing without their top
goalie, the Buffalo Sabres have been quickly sliding toward
irrelevance in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
If the Florida Panthers don't start winning soon, they may be in
the same boat.
Both desperate teams seek key points when they face off in
western New York on Wednesday night, with the Sabres hoping to
have Ryan Miller in net for the first time in more than a month.
Without Miller, Buffalo has allowed 17 goals while dropping its
last four games, falling seven points behind eighth-place
Montreal in the East standings.
The Panthers (35-27-11) are just two points behind the
Canadiens, but they've also been struggling with a 1-3-3 record
in their last seven games. While they could certainly use the
victory Wednesday, anything less than two points for the Sabres
may be fatal to Buffalo's playoff hopes.
"That's a real big game," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We're
still right there. It isn't as big a task as you would think as
long as you win the games you need to win. Obviously we haven't
won recently, but we can start Wednesday."
Buffalo (34-30-8) hopes its final push will happen in front of
Miller, the goalie who has started 234 games over the past four
seasons but none since Feb. 21, when he suffered a high ankle
sprain against the New York Rangers.
Miller, who's 29-16-5 with a 2.50 goals-against average,
completed his first full practice since the injury Monday,
although his chances of playing Wednesday remain uncertain.
"My plan is to get in as quick as possible, but I really can't
tell you when that's going to be," Miller said. "It's all
dependent on how quickly I get myself up to speed and how my
ankle reacts. You don't want to do anything too quick."
The Sabres are 3-7-2 in his absence, and while backup Patrick
Lalime initially played well as a replacement, he has a 4.35 GAA
in his last six starts. He was pulled from Saturday night's 5-3
loss to the New York Rangers after giving up four goals on 19
Buffalo has allowed 30 goals in its last seven games, going
1-5-1 over that span.
That could help the Panthers' sputtering offense, which is
averaging 1.7 goals in its last six contests.
"We've known since training camp that's an area we'd have to
fight, claw and scratch to get offense," Panthers coach Peter
DeBoer told the team's official Web site.
Florida generated 39 shots on goal Monday night against
Carolina, but lost 3-2 in overtime, as Cory Stillman's tying
goal with 4:05 left in regulation earned the Panthers one point
- "better than nothing," as Florida star defenseman Jay
The Panthers are trying to reach the playoffs for the first time
since the 1999-2000 season, and their three-game road trip this
week could be the key. After visiting Buffalo, they play
Thursday at Philadelphia then Saturday at Dallas.
"I have a good feeling that good things are going to happen,"
Panthers right wing Radek Dvorak said.
They already lost at HSBC Arena earlier this month, as Lalime
made 30 saves in the Sabres' 3-1 win March 12 to move to 8-3-0
with a 1.99 GAA all-time against Florida.
The Panthers are 1-4-1 in their last five trips to Buffalo and
7-18-2 with three ties there all-time.