RALEIGH — Back-to-back games late in the hockey season often are about will and stamina.
The Buffalo Sabres had a little more of both Sunday than the Carolina Hurricanes, surging to a big lead in the second period and then gamely holding on in the third for a 5-3 victory at the RBC Center.
It also helps to have a great goaltender, and the Sabres have that, too. Ryan Miller hasn't worked both games of back-to-backs many times this season, but the MVP of the Vancouver Olympics was a man in charge against the Canes when needed most.
Jochen Hecht scored twice for the Sabres, who have taken command of the Northeast Division and are gearing up for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tim Connolly, Toni Lydman and Tim Kennedy also had goals as Buffalo took a 5-1 lead in the second period in winning its third straight.
Not that it didn't get interesting at the end.
The Canes got a goal from Brandon Sutter early in the third and then a power-play score from Eric Staal with three minutes left in the period. They continued to buzz around Miller, putting 13 shots on net in the period, but couldn't pull closer.
"We had a couple of really, really good looks to put us within one with still 45 seconds left, and you never know," Staal said. "We didn't quit. We continued to attack.
"Obviously, it's a big pill to swallow, losing this big game for us."
With the Boston Bruins beating the New York Rangers 2-1 in an early game Sunday, the Hurricanes trail the eighth-place Bruins by eight points. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, and only four at home, the loss to the Sabres may have finally ended any hopes the Canes had of clawing their way into the playoffs.
Both teams were on the road Saturday. The Canes rallied for a thrilling 3-2 overtime win in Pittsburgh over the Penguins, while the Sabres were in Sunrise, Fla., handling the Florida Panthers 3-1.
"We were short on steam, I thought, coming back to the bench heaving it pretty good," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "We had just gone through a pretty emotional week here and a real physical test in terms of energy expended [against the Pens].
"I didn't think things were easy for us with the puck today. [We] passed up some chances to shoot early on, and that's a sign of not being mentally sharp, being a little fatigued. We couldn't just make the simple play and get it to the net."
The Canes managed just six shots in the first. Buffalo, ending a five-game road trip, led 1-0 after the first on Connolly's power-play score, then surged to the 5-1 lead in the second to knock goaltender Justin Peters out of the net.
Carolina did not score until after the Sabres led 4-0, as Sergei Samsonov tipped in a shot from the point by Brett Carson in the second. Sutter scored unassisted for his 18th of the season early in the third to make it 5-2.
But the Sabres, 25-0-0 this season when leading after two periods, survived as Miller finished off a 27-save game. Staal scored his 23rd on the late power play, but the Canes were 1-for-6 with a man advantage against the NHL's top penalty-kill team.
Peters relieved an injured Manny Legace against the Pens on Saturday and was stellar, but the rookie had a rough outing, allowing four goals on 14 Buffalo shots. Legace, who entered Sunday's game with 11:15 left in the second, gave up Kennedy's goal on the first shot he faced.
Hecht's first goal provided a lesson for rookie defenseman Jamie McBain, whose overtime score beat the Pens and was his first NHL goal. Hecht, going one-on-one with McBain on a rush into the Carolina zone, neatly wheeled around him and beat Peters with a forehand.
Hecht's power-play score came on a wraparound when Peters overcommitted, and Lydman scored on a two-on-one rush. Lydman's goal ended Peters' day, although Maurice told Peters he might be needed again if Legace, who suffered a leg injury Saturday in Pittsburgh, had problems.
Miller had started both games in back-to-backs just four times this season before Sunday. The starting goaltender for the U.S. Olympic team had 32 saves against the Panthers.
But Miller made the big stops Sunday, ending the Canes' comeback try, likely ending Carolina's playoff hopes.
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