The Panthers’ run of divisional dominance over the Buffalo came to a halt on Thursday night.
The Sabres’ 4-3 victory snapped the Panthers’ streak of seven straight wins over their Atlantic Division foe, the longest since the Panthers joined the NHL in 1993.
Having beaten the Sabres in the first two meetings of the season, the Panthers (17-16-6) entered Thursday’s game with a chance to move within six points of Buffalo (22-13-6) and Boston (22-14-4) for third place in the division standings.
With the loss, the Panthers fell nine points behind Montreal (22-14-5) for the the second Eastern Conference Wild Card spot, following the Canadiens’ 2-0 win over the Canucks on Thursday, and 10 points back from the Sabres.
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Frank Vatrano, Mike Hoffman and Aleksander Barkov scored for the Panthers. Roberto Luongo made 29 saves.
Unlike on Monday night when the Panthers clawed back from a three-goal deficit for a 4-3 shootout win in Detroit, they were unable to dig out of an early 2-0 hole against the Sabres.
Vatrano put the Panthers on the board when he scored his 11th of the season with 6:18 remaining in the second period.
All-Star Keith Yandle’s takedown of Buffalo rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and a quick breakout pass from Colton Sceviour set up a 2-on-1 for Vatrano and Jayce Hawryluk. Vatrano faked a pass and snapped a wrist shot from the inside edge of the right circle into the far corner of the net.
Hoffman converted on the Panthers’ third power-play opportunity of the night when he backhanded a loose puck at the edge of the crease off the post and into the net for his 19th of the year, trimming the Sabres’ lead to 3-2.
After the Sabres pushed their lead back up to two goals, Barkov swept in the rebound from Yandle’s long slap shot with 1:29 left in regulation. The Panthers could only put one shot on goal after pulling Luongo for an extra skater in the final minute.
The Panthers continued their trend of slow starts, spotting the Sabres a two-goal lead in the opening 7:15. They have now trailed during the first period in five consecutive games and fallen behind by multiple goals in three of those outings.
“I know we can find a way to come back but we don’t want that to happen anymore,” Barkov said. “We want to be leading after the first period and we want to be good at the beginning of games because that’s our identity and that’s the way we need to play.”
Roberto Luongo struggled at the outset again, giving up two goals on the first four shots he faced. Luongo allowed three goals on five shots before being pulled after the first period of Monday’s win at Detroit.
“I’m not overly concerned about it,” Boughner said. “I think that Lu has figured a way in his 20-plus years in the league to be a heck of a goaltender. … There’s always ups and downs with every player in this league, and goaltenders are no different.”
Buffalo took the lead 4:42 into the game when Jeff Skinner out-hustled Mark Pysyk, Mike Matheson and Jared McCann to collect the puck along the right boards, circled toward the net, maneuvered around Denis Malgin and beat Luongo with a snap shot from the high slot.
Less than three minutes later, McCann’s giveaway in the neutral zone led to a Sabres rush that ended with Tage Thompson firing a wrist shot through the five-hole.
“The difference was they came out stronger than us in the first period,” Hoffman said. “We gave them a couple of easy goals that we definitely could have avoided.”
Luongo stopped the next 19 shots he faced before Sam Reinhart tipped one in to extend the Sabres’ lead to 3-1 early in the third period.
Skinner scored his second of the game and 28th of the season with 3:46 left to play.
Luongo got the start over James Reimer despite his rough outing in Detroit due to his recent success in Buffalo’s barn. Luongo entered Thursday’s game with an 8-2-0 record, .942 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average in his last 10 games at KeyBank Center.
The Sabres won for the second time in seven games despite playing without All-Star captain Jack Eichel, who will miss at least one more game due to an upper-body injury.