TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning gave their new coach something to be optimistic about.
With Jon Cooper watching the team he'll officially begin coaching on Wednesday, the Lightning put together an energetic effort and held off the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 on Tuesday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Cooper told the media before the game that he thought the Lightning still had a chance to make the playoffs. A few more efforts like this one and he might be right. With Mathieu Garon solid in net and Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis providing the offense, the Lightning showed little resemblance to the lackadaisical group that helped get former coach Guy Boucher fired. The Lightning were the aggressors all night, winning the battles for loose pucks and backchecking forcefully as they limited the Sabres to a season-low 14 shots on goal.
"Obviously, these guys are at a point where they've played hard and not have much to show for it as a group," said Dan Lacroix, one of three assistant coaches who ran the team for the second straight game. "Trying to get two points and finally have smiles after a game and not just say that they worked hard tonight but there is nothing to show for it. Having a new coach watching probably helped a lot.
"I thought the intensity was there. The work ethic was there. Guys played extremely hard for each other and they showed that they care. They care about the team and the results."
In addition to seeing another much-needed two points vanish, Buffalo also lost its top scorer, Thomas Vanek, who left the ice during the third period with an upper-body injury and did not return.
Tampa Bay had just two shots in the opening period, but grabbed a 1-0 lead at 16:01 when Stamkos backed into the left circle to find some space, took a pass from St. Louis and one-timed the puck over Ryan Miller's glove. It was Stamkos' League-leading 23rd goal of the season of the season.
"It feels great," Stamkos said. "We wanted the puck today. We made plays and it showed out there."
The Lightning opened up a two-goal lead at 8:15 of the second when St. Louis got his eighth goal of the season while Tampa Bay had a two-man advantage. With Buffalo defensemen Robyn Regehr and Mike Weber in the penalty box, St. Louis buried a feed by Teddy Purcell from Miller's left. Stamkos had the other assist.
"On the St. Louis goal, I would have liked to be there," Miller said." I went with Purcell a little too long. I thought he was going to try to get a puck to the net and I was late on the read."
Buffalo had its best scoring opportunity in the middle period when Jason Pominville collected the puck just outside the crease to Garon's right. The Lightning netminder made an excellent cross-ice move to thwart the scoring chance.
"Garon did a real good job tonight," Lacroix said. "Whenever we had a breakdown, having the kind of game Garon had really helped us and kept the momentum on our side. Guys get pumped when there are big plays and there were a few big plays from him tonight."
The Sabres broke up Garon's shutout bid with 3:08 left in regulation when Jordan Leopold skated down the slot and fired home a slap shot for his sixth goal of the season. Even though Buffalo cut the deficit to one goal, the Sabres didn't generate any serious scoring threats before time ran out.
"There wasn't a lot of urgency in anything tonight," Buffalo interim coach Ron Rolston said. "Why? That's a good question. [Marcus] Foligno tried to get things going with the fight; he's a tough kid and he tried to get things going but nothing was going."
Foligno and Lightning defenseman Keith Aulie engaged in a lively battle near the midpoint of the second period. Foligno decked Aulie early, but Aulie popped back up and eventually floored Foligno before the officials stepped in.
Trying to overcome a two-goal deficit is difficult at any time, but especially against Tampa Bay, which has dominated the third period this season. In all, 47 of the Lightning's 105 tallies have come in the final period; they are first in the League in third-period scoring.
"We didn't get enough pucks in deep," Miller said. "Early on we didn't get enough of them deep and they got a little more zone time. If you put yourself in a two-goal hole, you'll find it tough to climb back most nights. We couldn't do it tonight."
Tampa Bay (14-18-1) held the Sabres (13-16-4) scoreless on four power plays, three in the game's first 22 minutes.
Lightning forward Benoit Pouliot returned to action after missing 11 games with an upper body injury. He played 5:52 and had two hits and one shot on net.
Both Buffalo and the Lightning are battling long odds as they try to claw their way upward into a playoff position. Tampa Bay helped itself Tuesday night; Buffalo did not.
"No one is going to help us," Miller said. "We have to get two points every night. Unfortunately the first two periods tonight didn't speak to what we've been trying to do lately."