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HOCKEY

Panthers target top spot in East at Buffalo

A victory tonight for the Florida Panthers would put them in some very rare territory: first place in the Eastern Conference.

The Panthers look to grab the top spot in the standings with their first four- game win streak since 2008 as they battle the shorthanded Buffalo Sabres.

Owners of an NHL-record 10-season playoff drought, Florida comes into tonight's game seven points up on Washington for first place in the Southeast Division and a point back of idle Philadelphia for the East's top spot. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Panthers haven't held first place in the East after October since Feb. 12, 1997.

Florida proved some doubters wrong last night as they took on Northeast Division-leading Boston and left town with a 2-0 victory behind a season-high 40 saves from Jose Theodore. That gave the Panthers their second three-game win streak of the season and they haven't won four in a row since a club- record seven-game run from March 2-16, 2008.

Theodore shook off the flu to record his second shutout of the season and 32nd of his career. It was also his first whitewash since Oct. 8.

"I think I've been doing the same thing the last 10 games or so," said Theodore, who is 5-1-1 in his last seven games with a .948 save percentage. "Obviously tonight it's a shutout, but I still got lucky on a couple of posts. I'm keeping it simple and doing the same thing every game and just playing up to the level that I once played."

Florida has won seven of its last 10 and got the deciding goal from Tomas Kopecky with 2:32 left in the third. Kris Versteeg sealed it with an empty- netter, his team-leading 13th goal of the season.

"I think today was a typical playoff game," Kopecky said of the atmosphere.

First Niagara Center is likely to be less exciting given the Sabres recent troubles. Their 5-4 overtime loss to the Flyers on Wednesday was their sixth loss in eight games overall and sixth in the last seven at home. Buffalo opened a five-game residency on Wednesday.

The Sabres raced out to a quick 3-0 lead on first-period goals by Ville Leino, Zack Kassian and Thomas Vanek, but the Flyers got one back right before the end of the frame and then scored three times in the second stanza.

"It's a tough period to have it turn that sharp," said Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who made 29 saves. "It took us a long time to get ship righted but I think we did battle back there at the end and got the point."

Drew Stafford secured the point on his game-tying goal with 1:45 left in regulation.

Buffalo lost forward Nathan Gerbe to a concussion when he was hit hard from behind and into the boards by Flyers defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon during the second period. Bourdon was called for boarding, but did not receive further discipline from the league.

Leino, though, was handed a one-game suspension Thursday for an unpenalized elbow to the head of Philadelphia's Matt Read. Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff wasn't surprised Leino had a hearing, but was displeased the league didn't act on Bourdon.

"I don't think there's any malicious intent on that [elbow by Leino] or any great degree but I'm not surprised because it was a blow to the head," Ruff said of Leino's hearing on Thursday. "Gerbe's, I am surprised there's no hearing, I really am. That one really surprises me because he's defenseless, he gets hit hard, he's hurt. That one I can't figure out."

That will leave the Sabres without Gerbe, Leino, Patrick Kaleta (groin) and Jordan Leopold (upper body) for tonight, though Cody McCormick is expected to play for the first time since Nov. 14 after suffering a concussion. Paul Gaustad is also questionable with an upper-body issue.

These two clubs have split a pair of meetings this year, with each team winning once on the road. Miller made 22 saves in a 3-0 win at Florida on Oct. 20, but the Panthers got goals from Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Garrison and Marcel Goc to win at Buffalo nine days later. Kopecky assisted on all three tallies.

Buffalo's Jason Pominville has a pair of goals and two assists in the two meetings this year and has four tallies and six assists over a five-game point streak against the Panthers.