By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — What? Where? How?
If you missed the third period of Buffalo’s 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers, call your buddies to find out who DVR’d it and pop on by with a pizza tonight. This was straight therapy for fans who’ve been put through a painful ringer the past two seasons — a time when goals and guts have seemed absent at inopportune times.
You assumed Maxim Afinogenov’s empty-netter ended it. Case closed. After trailing 3-1 in the third with their slim playoff chances hanging in the balance, the Sabres rallied with an incredible stretch of four goals that left the Panthers in equally rough shape.
But while the goals were vital, it might have been a late melee that finally brought this team together.
After he tucked it in the net, Afinogenov got bounced like a ping-ping ball, Nathan Horton playing the role of Paddle No. 2.
Not surprising. Teams have run at the Sabres goalies. At their superstars. Heck, if Lindy Ruff was on skates he’d have a target on his back, too.
And a group that included Tim Connolly, Jaroslav Spacek, Clarke MacArthur and Craig Rivet was on the ice, the only teammates that could come to Afinogenov’s rescue.
Aside from Rivet, that’s hardly intimidating.
That’s when it happened — a group that hasn’t protected each other all season did so just when you assumed they’d already pulled the wedges out of the closet.
All five Sabres scrapped and scrapped and scrapped some more. Rivet kicked the bejeezus out of former Sabres draft choice Keith Ballard. Then as things finally settled down — the thunderous HSBC crowd on its feet — MacArthur motioned to Stephen Weiss, nodding with his head that he wanted to go.
That’s right — Clarke MacArthur. Looking for a fight.
“It was awesome,” Ruff said of the team’s surprising toughness.
MacArthur is not the guy the Sabres pencil when they’re looking for toughness. A finesse guy who scored the tying goal in the third on a bullet shot, MacArthur is often the guy Ruff scratches when it looks like the road might be bumpy.
But the time seemed right. And a young guy the team’s been hoping would blossom made two big plays — one when he evened things up on the scoreboard, and another when he tried to even them up with his fists.
“They cheap-shotted Max twice,” MacArthur said. “Then, Weiss was trying to fight Connolly and I figured I was probably a better man to get in there, instead of one of our best players. I wish I would have been able to get at him.
“Either way, we battled hard and stuck together. It would have been a steep hill. That’s given us some life. Now we just need to show what character we have and keep rolling.”
If the Sabres play like that, like a group that knows it’s down to its final chances, maybe there’s still something to this. Buffalo entered Wednesday’s game with an 8.3 percent chance of making the postseason, according to the Web site sportsclubstats.com.
But anything can happen, especially with franchise goalie Ryan Miller expected to return to the lineup on Friday against Toronto.
Maybe Wednesday will break them from their scoring shell. Maybe Ruff’s comments about a team flu bug that’s passed really made a difference.
Maybe there’s still reason to believe.
But not if they don’t play with the same grit they showed through Wednesday’s final 14 minutes.
“We’ve got to be desperate like that every game,” MacArthur said. “If we play like we did there in the third, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.