By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE — Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom gave the Florida Panthers life in the shootout Thursday night. Mike Santorelli took it one step further.
Huberdeau tied the shootout session in the second round, goaltender Markstrom stopped three out of four Buffalo shots and Santorelli won the game by beating Sabres netminder Ryan Miller in the fourth round in Florida’s 5-4 victory to snap a four-game home losing streak before 17,044 fans at BB&T Center.
Jason Pominville scored on Markstrom in the shootout’s first shot, but Huberdeau, who scored his team-leading 13th goal in the third period, faked Miller and put a shot that appeared to travel along the goal line and not cross it, prompting the officials to call it no goal. However, a review showed the knob of Miller’s stick pushing the puck over the line entirely, and Huberdeau was awarded the marker to tie it at 1-1.
Drew Stafford, Shawn Matthias and Steve Ott all missed in attempts to potentially win the game before Santorelli stepped up. He skated in and completely deked Miller, who sprawled in the crease in a last-ditch effort to make the save. Santorelli moved to the right and easily flipped the game-winning shot over Miller — the Florida forward’s ninth shootout goal in 18 career attempts.
Florida made multiple-goal leads stand up against Carolina and the New York Rangers on its recent five-game road trip but couldn’t do the same against a Buffalo team that lost 2-1 at Tampa Bay on Tuesday. Florida held a 2-0 edge in the first minute of the second period but saw the Sabres (13-16-5) erase the deficit against Markstrom.
The teams went back and forth in a frantic third period with Florida battling back twice to tie the game.
With the Panthers trailing 3-2, the red-hot Matthias left the penalty box and scored his second goal of the night and ninth in his last 15 games by forcing the puck off the stick of Kevin Porter right after Buffalo’s power play expired. Peter Mueller immediately fired on Miller, then Matthias scooped up the rebound and scored his career-high 12th to knot it at 3-3.
Marcus Foligno tipped in a shot by Jordan Leopold for a 4-3 Buffalo lead, but Mueller found Huberdeau streaking through the slot and fed the Florida rookie as the Panthers tied it yet again at the 13:51 mark. Huberdeau, who broke a nine-goal goal drought, leads all NHL rookies with 13 goals and also added an assist.
The Panthers (10-19-6) controlled much of the game’s early play and finally capitalized just under four minutes into the contest.
Huberdeau lost a faceoff to Tyler Ennis in the left circle in front of Miller, but he and linemate Peter Mueller outfought Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr for the puck behind the goal. The rookie gained control and passed to defenseman Tyson Strachan, who fired a long shot on Miller. Matthias corralled the juicy rebound, skated patiently through the low slot and beat Miller with a high shot.
Florida added another just 43 seconds into the second period after Ville Leino’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty carried over. Tomas Fleischmann put away a blind, backhand pass from Tomas Kopecky for a power-play goal, his eighth, and a 2-0 lead.
The Sabres took advantage of the remainder of the period, though, scoring three times in the last 18:34 to take a 3-2 lead into third.
Nathan Gerbe scored his fourth goal — his third against Florida — off a deflected shot beyond the right circle. Just over 13 minutes later, Dmitry Kulikov’s clearing attempt from behind Markstrom caromed off Ott. Andrej Sekera blasted a shot that beat Markstrom to tie the game at 2-2. Christian Ehrhoff’s shot deflected in off Drew Stafford to give the forward his fifth goal and Buffalo a 3-2 lead with only 56 seconds left in the period.
“I thought (we) were a little bit undeniable tonight,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “Even though we got down at the end of the second, we were down at times in the third period, I felt like there was a feeling on the bench that, you know what, we owed our fans here at home, we owed ourselves. We didn’t want to make it that entertaining, but we’ll take it.”
Mueller and Brian Campbell each had a pair of assists for Florida, who won the season series over Buffalo. Both Markstrom (4-7-1) and Miller (11-14-5) faced 40 shots and made 36 saves.
The Sabres’ lone win was a 4-3 shootout victory on Feb. 28 in South Florida while the Panthers won 4-3 on Super Bowl Sunday in Buffalo. The Panthers had not won at home since a 4-1 triumph over Winnipeg on March 5 yet won two out of five games on the road trip.
Before the game, Florida announced that team captain Ed Jovanovski would have hip surgery next Friday but also added the procedure wouldn’t be career threatening for the 36-year-old defenseman.
“Obviously, it’s Jovo’s decision,” said Florida general manager Dale Tallon. “He’s the one that has to make the final call on that. Nobody knows his body better than he does. I have every confidence that he will do whatever it takes to get back to playing. It’s been a tough year for all of us, but we’ll get through it and we’ll look forward to moving on and getting better.”