Facing their first prospect of a three-game winless streak in 2015-16, the Lightning responded much the way they did a year ago: resolutely determined not to let consecutive losses pile up.
Tampa Bay certainly wasn’t at its best on Saturday against Buffalo, but the Lightning played sound enough defensively and created just enough scoring chances to overcome a pesky Sabres squad and win their sixth-straight over Buffalo.
Plus, Ben Bishop turned in a top star-worthy performance in net and was “clearly the best player on the ice” according to head coach Jon Cooper.
The Lightning improve to 4-2-0 following its first home stand of the season. The schedule, however, becomes decidedly more difficult next week as the Bolts embark on a four-game, Central Division road trip with stops in Nashville, Winnipeg, Chicago and St. Louis. All four teams made the playoffs last season, including the Cup winner Blackhawks, while the Predators, Jets and Blues have all started the season 4-1-0.
How can the Lightning continue winning during this early-season test? Three Things the Bolts got right on Saturday.
1.BEN BISHOP TAKES HIS PLACE ATOP THE LIGHTNING ALL-TIME GOALIES LIST
Ben Bishop is the best goaltender in Tampa Bay Lightning history.
Saturday, he made it official.
The Lightning netminder stopped 31-of-32 Buffalo shots and made a number of top-notch saves while preserving a lead in the final minutes to record his 84th victory in a Bolts uniform and surpass Nikolai Khabibulin for the top spot on Tampa Bay’s all-time goalie wins list.
That Bishop was able to accomplish the feat in a little more than two seasons shows:
A). The Lightning haven’t had much to brag about when it comes to goaltending and…
B). Bishop has been one of the best in the NHL during his tenure in Tampa Bay.
Following win No. 84, Bishop was reserved, respectful on setting the new franchise mark.
“It’s great, it’s an honor,” he said. “This is a great organization. It’s been a pleasure to play for them so far, and hopefully we can set that number a little higher.”
Bishop also earned win No. 99 of his NHL career on Saturday and needs one more for 100, a milestone he could achieve as soon as Tuesday when the Lightning travel to Nashville.
In nearly four seasons with St. Louis and Ottawa combined, Bishop tallied just 15 victories.
In two-plus seasons with the Bolts, he has 84, which shows how much Bishop has matured and improved since the Lightning traded for him late in the 2012-13 season and how much better Bishop is when surrounded by a quality team.
Saturday’s sterling performance was just one of many Bishop has given while with the Lightning.
“He was huge as usual,” Vladislav Namestnikov said. “It’s great to have a goalie that can make saves like that. It’s huge for us.”
2. SPECIAL TEAMS TURNAROUND
The Lightning’s special teams units have been maligned of late for their ineffectiveness, but on Saturday, they were the key to a win.
Tampa Bay’s penalty kill entered the Buffalo contest having allowed seven goals on 15 opponent power plays, a 53.3 PK success rate that ranked last in the NHL.
Buffalo had three power plays on Saturday, but the Lightning snuffed out all three and, more importantly, didn’t allow the Sabres to use the man-advantage as a springboard to controlling play.
Meanwhile, the Lightning power play hadn’t produced a goal in two-straight games but found its scoring touch in a key moment of the game, connecting on Alex Killorn’s game-winner with 3:57 remaining in regulation.
“(Penalty kill) was great led by Ben, and you get the power play at the end of the game where you have a tie game and you can win it on that and we did it,” Cooper said. “So, you’ve got to give special teams some credit.”
Special teams have been the difference -- positively and negatively -- for the Lightning over the last three games. Against Detroit and Dallas, the specialty units struggled mightily and the Lightning lost.
Against Buffalo, Tampa Bay’s special teams got back on track and got the Bolts back in the win column.
3. NAMESTNIKOV FINDS A HOME
For the past two seasons, Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov has split time between Tampa Bay and the Bolts’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
Last season, Namestnikov started the year in Tampa but was shuttled to Syracuse midway through the year and played well enough with the Crunch to earn a spot as a starter in the AHL All-Star Game.
Now with a chance to find a permanent place in the Lightning lineup in 2015-16, Namestnikov is making the most of his opportunity.
After recording just one point (an assist) through the first four games, Namestnikov has tallied a goal in each of the last two for the first two-game goal streak of his NHL career.
On Saturday with the Lightning trailing 1-0, Namestnikov got the puck along the right wing on a partial break and deposited it over the right leg pad of Buffalo goaltender Chad Johnson for a much-needed goal and swing in momentum for the Bolts.
“He’s a gamer, so he’s just trying to get better,” Cooper said. “He’s been fighting, fighting, fighting to find a spot in the lineup, and he’s getting his chance this year and surely he’s making the best of it.”
After getting less than 10 minutes of ice time in the previous two games, both defeats, Namestnikov saw 10:22 of action Saturday, including time on the Bolts’ power play. His plus-four ratio ranks tied for fifth on the Lightning.
“He was one of our bright spots up front tonight,” Cooper said. “The ice time he got, he earned, and he kept getting it.”
With the majority of its team back from last year, Tampa Bay doesn’t have a lot of openings in its lineup.
Namestnikov, however, seems to be carving his niche and making an impact when he gets his moment.