BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Sabres captain Brian Gionta was presented with a silver-plated stick before the opening faceoff of his 1,000th career game on Monday night.
Afterward, Gionta received a puck to go with it: The game-winner, in fact.
The 15-year NHL veteran celebrated his milestone evening by scoring what stood as the decisive goal in a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers.
“It was an emotional night, a great thing the organization did and my teammates being a part of it was pretty special,” Gionta said. “Seeing my family out there was pretty emotional and I’m just happy to get through it have them share in the moment.”
Sabres players wore No. 12 Gionta T-shirts beneath their jerseys and felt it was only fitting their respected leader delivered by upping Buffalo’s lead to 3-0 early in the second period.
“Tonight was his night,” Marcus Foligno said. “Got a big goal. The boys were pretty pumped about that.”
Gionta received a pass to the left of the net, then cut across the crease, drawing goalie James Reimer out of position. After Gionta’s first attempt was denied by Reilly Smith, he flipped a bad-angle shot toward the net that deflected in off the hands of defenseman Jason Demers.
“Just a lucky bounce, I guess, on this night,” he said.
Foligno, Ryan O’Reilly and Zach Bogosian also scored for the Sabres. Robin Lehner stopped 30 shots, including punching his glove hand out to get a piece of Smith’s backhander on a penalty shot 5:23 into the third period.
Buffalo improved to 4-1 in its past five and earned its 76th point to move one back of the 13th-place Panthers in the Eastern Conference standings.
Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and an assist and Jonathan Marchessault scored his team-leading 29th goal and sixth in three games. The Panthers lost for the first time in three games but dropped to 4-11-1 in their past 16.
Reimer gave up four goals on 22 shots and was pulled after Foligno beat him on the short side with a bad-angle shot from the lower left circle with 4:52 left in the second period. Reto Berra took over and finished with 10 saves.
Florida responded to the goalie change 62 seconds later, when Huberdeau scored from the slot to cut Buffalo’s lead to 4-2.
Smith lamented the chance he squandered in being stopped on the penalty shot.
“It was a lot of opportunities out there,” Smith said. “It was just tough that not a lot of them went in the back of the net.”
The NHL’s top-ranked penalty-killing unit shared part of the blame in allowing the Sabres to convert on their first two power-play chances.
“We didn’t play the way we’re supposed to,” general manager and interim coach Tom Rowe said. “We weren’t prepared mentally or physically, and that’s what happens when you come into a building like this and they’re ready and we weren’t.”
Buffalo does possess the NHL’s top power-play unit.
O’Reilly opened the scoring with a power-play goal 3:21 in. Jack Eichel set it up by driving up the right wing and firing a bad-angle shot that caromed off Reimer’s pad and into the slot to O’Reilly, who snapped the puck into the top left corner.
Gionta’s goal also came with the man advantage. It was the 289th of his career and allowed him to reach the 15-goal mark for the ninth time in 15 seasons and first time in his three years in Buffalo.
NOTES: The Sabers honored Gionta before the game with a video tribute that included footage of him playing as a youngster and recollections and tributes from family, friends and teammates. They included former New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, who selected him in the third round of the 1998 draft. ... Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons briefly made it 5-2 with a minute left in the second period, but the goal was disallowed following a video review determining the puck was kicked in through Berra’s legs. ... Panthers LW Shawn Thornton played his 700th career game, while D Mark Pysyk, acquired by Florida in trade from Buffalo in June, played his 200th.
Panthers: Continue four-game road trip at Toronto on Tuesday night.
Sabres: At Columbus on Tuesday night.
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