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Panthers clinch a playoff berth

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Panthers beat Sabres 5-3 to clinch playoff berth



Associated Press


BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Jonathan Huberdeau set Florida's single-season points record, and the Panthers clinched a playoff berth with a 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.

Huberdeau scored his 24th goal to extend his point streak to eight games and raise his season total to 97, one more than teammate Aleksander Barkov's record set in 2019.

"He's a tremendous player, and he deserves it the way he's been playing," said Barkov, who had two assists and is second on the Panthers with 72 points. "It couldn't happen to a better guy. We still have a lot of games left, so it's going to be a lot of fun to see where he's going to end up."

Anthony Duclair scored twice as the Panthers (48-15-6) established a franchise record for victories. Winning for the seventh time in eight games, Florida closed a back-to-back trip by improving to 20-9-6 on the road.

"Obviously, to clinch, it's fun," Huberdeau said. "The rest of the season is really important as well. Want to finish first, get home-ice advantage, and just to get good momentum into the playoffs."

MacKenzie Weegar had a goal and an assist for Florida. Anton Lundell also scored, and Spencer Knight made 26 saves. Claude Giroux had two assists.

The Panthers are the first team in the league to qualify for the postseason and have reached the playoffs in a third straight season for the first time in the 28-year history of the franchise.

"We have eyes on bigger prizes here," interim coach Andrew Brunette said. "It's a nice accomplishment and well-deserved, and we should celebrate a little bit. ... We've got some big games coming down the stretch, and we have to make sure we are on top of our game here the next month."

Jeff Skinner had a goal and an assist for the Sabres, who are on the cusp of of missing the playoffs for an NHL-record 11th consecutive season. Tage Thompson and Kyle Okposo also scored, and Dustin Tokarski stopped 35 shots.

Buffalo lost an eight-game point streak (5-0-3), its longest in three seasons. The Sabres will be eliminated from the playoffs with another loss, or a win by the Washington Capitals.

"The entirety of the game, we just couldn't get the emotional energy," Sabres coach Don Granato said. "I give our guys credit for trying to find it and fight. But we just didn't have that jump, that zip, that we have when we're fresh."

The Sabres closed to 4-3 on power-play goals by Skinner and Thompson 1:54 apart in the third period. Skinner poked in his 28th from inside the crease at 8:25. Then he sent a backhand pass between his legs to Thompson, who scored his 31st from the right slot at 10:19.

"We left the door open for them a little bit, and they almost snuck it in," Brunette said

But Weegar helped close it out with a power-play goal for the Panthers with 1:35 left.

"I really liked our whole game until we got in penalty trouble there," Brunette said. "We played a really good road game on a back-to-back where we expended a lot of energy getting back last night."

After rallying from a four-goal deficit for a 7-6 overtime win at New Jersey on Saturday, the NHL's top scoring team went on the attack in the second by scoring three times while outshooting Buffalo 22-8.

Lundell got the go-ahead goal, knocking in a rebound for his 15th with 4:05 left in the period.

Duclair made it 3-1 when he scored 1:06 later on a feed from Gustav Forsling. Barkov extended his point streak to four games with a backhand pass leading to Duclair's 28th goal less than a minute into the third.

Huberdeau's tying goal 6:18 into the second was generated by Giroux's forechecking. He took the puck from Sabres defenseman Jacob Bryson before feeding Huberdeau in the high slot.

Okposo put the Sabres in front late in the first, redirecting Mattias Samuelsson's point shot for his 18th goal.

Skinner said the Panthers' skill and depth at forward leave little margin for error when playing against them.

"You make one mistake, it doesn't matter who is out there for them," he said. "They're going to make you pay."

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