Merry eve of Christmas Eve from high atop HSBC Arena, just behind one of the sets of national flags from the World Junior Championships flapping in the breeze of the air vents. It's the Sabres and Florida Panthers in the final pre-holiday game of the teams' schedules. I would expect the Sabres to come out strong after getting blitzed for four first-period goals in the first period of Friday's 6-2 loss in Sunrise.
You wonder how the Panthers will come out. They gave up three goals in the first 11 minutes of last night's 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh. It's their third game in four nights and second in two nights, the same scenario Anaheim was in when the Ducks got here Tuesday. The Ducks played like they had one leg on the plane home and the Sabres rolled, 5-2. Let's see if Florida does likewise.
Ryan Miller goes for career win No. 200 tonight. Florida counters with Tomas Vokoun, who was yanked in Pittsburgh while trying for No. 254. Repeating today's earlier note: The Sabres are just 3-13-2 vs. opponents' starting goalies. Two of the wins (vs. Toronto's J.S. Giguere and Ottawa's Brian Elliott were by shootout. The only regulation win came against San Jose's Antti Niemi).
Buffalo starters: Stafford-Hecht-Pominville-Leopold-Montador. Goal: Miller
Florida starters: Santorelli-Reasoner-Frolik-Weaver-Garrison. Goal: Vokoun
If you want to take your eyes off MSG for a bit, keep in mind that the Penguins-Capitals game is on NHL Network -- with both crews from HBO doing heavy-duty lifting tonight!. That one is in Washington and is a preview of next week's Winter Classic. Other big ones to watch include Atlanta at Boston, Tampa Bay at the Rangers, Montreal at Carolina and Ottawa at Nashville.
9:00 p.m. We're under way.
17:11 left: Miller robs Reasoner on a rebound in front and Kulikov goes for a high stick on Pominville chasing the rebound. Sabres call timeout. Little thin without Roy. Give the PP guys a needed break.
15:17 left: Hecht puts it behind Vokoun but through the empty crease. That was the chance.
11:04 left: Panthers much better in this period. Shots are 9-8 for Florida and the visitors are creating some pressure in the Buffalo zone.
6:56 left: Things have gotten tight. Still 3-3. Shots 11-9 for Buffalo and 40-26 overall. It would be hard for either team to take if they didn't get a point out of this one. But Sabres certainly need regulation wins.
5:34 left: Great work by McCormick, Gerbe and Grier. Couple in-tight chances but Vokoun holds on and McCormick goes for roughing with Bryan Allen.
5:07 left: Jason Garrison gives the Panthers a 4-3 lead, beating Miller on a 2-on-1. It came after Myers fell in the Panthers zone trying the spin move again. He charged McCreary after the play to no avail. Lucky he didn't get two or 10 for that.
1:26 left: Sabres to the PP as Bryan McCabe goes for cross-checking.
it's over: A 4-3 loss. Final shots 48-29. Hard to fathom. Goes back to that terrible first period really.
Of note: Because of the penalties, Vanek played just 3:41 of the first and was minus-2. Not to mention he didn't cash the breakaway at the end of the period. Nor did Grier, with a brutal attempt shorthanded that would have made it 1-1. Sabres did have 13 hits in the first compared to three for Florida. But like that really matters.
Of note II: Florida's Higgins had three goals in 27 games. Was scoreless in 13 games dating to Nov. 12. He scored twice in the first period tonight.
Of note III: No Roy. No official word but would assume he's out for the night. And likely beyond.
8:05 p.m.: The puck is dropped.
17:07 left: Sabres showing a little fire. How nice of them. Shots are 5-0 and Miller took a glove shot at Reasoner when he came a little close to him behind the net again. Shots are 15-14 for Florida. It was, remember, 13-3 at one point.
14:16 left: Leopold takes a Pominville pass and fires it through Vokoun's legs to make it 3-1. Point of absurdity as we played 1:38 after it appeared Ennis had scored. Light went on, horn went off, smoke belched from the HD board. They're reviewing it. It's going to be 3-1 Panthers no matter what. Just a matter of how much time on the clock and which goal counts. And the official word -- Roy has a lower body injury and will not return.
12:53 left: Frolik goes for hooking. Shots are 9-1 Buffalo and here's a chance to get back within one.
11:45 left: And there's the way to capitalize. Myers with some great work lugging it into the zone and Pominville curls to his right and snaps a wrister through Vokoun's glove. Panthers lead, 3-2. Shots are 10-1 in this period. You wonder if the Panthers are just going to run out of gas playing back to back and three in four nights.
9:30 left: Gerbe just misses tapping a Hecht rebound into a wide-open net. A couple big "Let's Go, Buffalo" chants in this period. The crowd is into this one. Lots of folks home for Christmas giving us an atmosphere and getting away from the library we've had much of the year. Have to keep shooting on Vokoun. He looks shaky, like he was last night in Pittsburgh.
8:46 left: More bad news courtesy of eagle eyes of AP's Bob Matuszak. No Drew Stafford on the bench.
7:39 left: Sabres tie it 3-3 and the building erupts. A spinorama by Myers at center ice and a cut up the middle from Leopold, putting him in the clear. A great snapshot by Vokoun for his second of the night and ninth of the year. Take note, forwards. Basketball-style timeout, Florida. Shots are 15-1 and the joint is jumping. And Stafford is back.
3:55 left: Shots are 17-1 in this period and 26-16 for the game for Buffalo. That means they're 23-3 for the Sabres over the last 22 minutes.
2:05 left: Miller with a super save on Booth from right in front. Shots were 19-1 in the period until that one. That would have been pretty devastating to have that one go in given the way this period has gone.
1:20 left: Wideman for cross checking.
End-2nd: So believe it or not, it's 3-3. Shots were 20-2 in that period. Yes, 20-2. It's 29-17 through 40 minutes.
7:08 p.m.: The puck is dropped.
18:50 left: Chris Higgins scores for the Panthers, swiping the rebound of Evgeny Dadonov's shot out of mid-air in front of Andrej Sekera and past Miller. It's under review. Looks close. Miller immediately signaled high stick. But it counts. Panthers lead, 1-0.
18:19 left: It gets worse. Miller for delay of game for puck over the glass, served by McCormick
17:11 left: And even worse. Gaustad for hooking. Comes 14 seconds after Vokoun stopped Grier of a breakaway that could have tied the game.
15:10 left: Good work by Myers-Sekera-Pominville combined with Miller to kill the 5-on-3 against the NHL's worst power play. Shots already 6-1 for Florida.
13:20 left: Roy limps off (left leg/knee) after taking a big hit along the boards from Dmitry Kulikov. He's the d-man you may remember who took the tough hit last week from Patrick Kaleta that the Panthers thought was a suspendable headshot.
12:41 left: Weiss gone for slashing. Roy has gone to the dressing room, not on the ice for the PP. Not good.
9:16 left: Nearly had a line brawl after Marty Reasoner bumped Miller from behind (reminiscent of the Scott Gomez play from two years ago). Gaustad chased Reasoner around the ice and Kaleta got involved with Kulikov among others. Kaleta off to the tunnel and smashes his stick on the floor on the way out. Kulikov definitely got Kaleta from behind. Kulikov got two for roughing. Kaleta got four for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct. That's a joke. Nothing on Reasoner and Kulikov suckered Kaleta from behind. I would say the Sabres better run Vokoun in this game. Ridiculous.
8:40 left: And now Gaustad goes for hooking. Two men short again for 1:24. Refs Bill McCreary and Greg Kimmerly are KILLING the Sabres so far.
7:50 left: Great passing by the Panthers as Frolik finds Weiss alone to Miller's left for a tap-in. Panthers lead, 2-0. Shots are 12-3.
6:07 left: The disaster continues. Higgins with a backhand from in front to Miller's left. Panthers lead, 3-0 (or 7-0 in first periods against Buffalo in the last seven days). Shots are 13-3.
4:37 left: Sabres get physical as Grier, Rivet and McCormick all issues some good checks. They're frustrated by the scoreboard, the officiating, everything. Look at everything that has gone against them in 15 minutes: A replay review, what looks like a potentially serious injury to their top scorer, six penalties (a couple very dubious ones) and a misconduct, the bumping of Miller. What's next?
2:50 left: I guess that firing of John MacLean helped the Devils. They're losing tonight to the Islanders, 3-0, after 11 minutes. Yeesh.
1:31 left: Vokoun stops Vanek on a clear break after great work at center ice along the wall by Ennis to speed away from the defense and get the puck ahead. Sabres needed that one.
End-1st: It's 3-0 for the Panthers and 7-0 in the last two first periods against Buffalo. Shots were 15-9 for Florida.