Jeff Skinner scored twice Thursday. ©2019, Hickling Images

Sabres beat Panthers, hit halfway mark on high note

BUFFALO – The cushion the Sabres created during their 10-game winning streak is long gone. In losing 11 out of 15 contests before Thursday’s tight 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers, they dropped from first or second place in the Atlantic Division to the Eastern Conference’s top wild card spot.

So Thursday’s victory, the Sabres’ first game without captain Jack Eichel, who’s nursing an upper-body injury and will miss at least one more game, was huge.

In defeating the Panthers for the first time in eight tries, the Sabres snapped their three-game losing streak (0-2-1) and kept two teams gunning for them at bay.

The Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders both won Thursday, so if the Sabres had lost in regulation, they would’ve fallen out of a playoff spot.

Sure, the Sabres endured a rough December. But they hit the halfway mark of the season 22-13-6. They’re in terrific shape.

Remember, the Sabres won 25 games all of last season, when they mustered 62 points and finished dead last. They’ve come a long way in a short period.

What if someone had told coach Phil Housley three months ago the Sabres would have 50 points 41 games into the season?

“Basing off last year, I’d be pretty happy,” Housley said. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

Thursday’s win might’ve been one of the Sabres’ most satisfying all season.

In Eichel’s absence, winger Jeff Skinner, an NHL All-Star Game snub, scored twice, his 27th and 28th goals. Skinner ranks second in league goal scoring, trailing only Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin by one.

Skinner can still earn a place on the Atlantic Division All-Star squad through the “Last Men In” vote, which runs on until Jan. 10.

Expect teammates to cast lots of ballots for Skinner.

“I’m trying as much as I can,” said Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark, who made 35 saves to improve to 9-1-3. “We’re all trying.”

Housley tried spreading out ice time among his centers with Eichel, the Sabres’ leading scorer, out. As a result, Vladimir Sobotka cracked the 20-minute mark for the first time this season. Johan Larsson, meanwhile, surpassed the 19-minute mark.

“This is contribution by committee,” Housley said. “I thought everybody played a very strong game tonight within the minutes that they got.”

For the third straight meeting against the Panthers, the Sabres held a one-goal lead entering the third period. On Dec. 18, they also led 2-1 before losing 5-2.

This time, however, the Sabres never panicked before the crowd of 18,551 inside KeyBank Center.

“We recognized that that we needed to bear down, make the right plays,” Housley said.

Sabres winger Sam Reinhart scored 1:20 into the period, his first goal in 12 games.

“Reino gets a big goal there, gives us a lift,” Skinner said.

After the Sabres couldn’t score on a long two-man advantage, Mike Hoffman’s power-play goal got the Panthers within one again.

Then Skinner restored the Sabres’ third two-goal lead. They eked out their first win against the Panthers since March 27, 2017 after Aleksander Barkov scored with 91 seconds left.

“I really liked our game throughout the whole 60 minutes,” Housley said. “We knew that they were going to give us a push. I thought we came out, we executed well, we attacked the game.”

Winger Tage Thompson scored the Sabres’ other goal, his first in 15 games.

“We knew the result that we got last time we played them, and it wasn’t what we wanted,” Thompson said. “I think we went into tonight’s game with a chip on our shoulder and played that way for a full 60.”

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