The Tampa Bay Lightning continued their mastery of the Buffalo Sabres, winning 4-1 at the First Niagara Center on Saturday to improve to 8-1-1 in their last 10 versus Buffalo. In the process, the Lightning were victorious in their opener on the road, a place they were a pedestrian 18-16-7 and ranked 19th in the NHL for wins (18) and points (43) a season ago.
Tampa Bay reaches the midpoint of its three-games-in-four-games road trip on Monday in Boston, a city where the Lightning are just 4-29-4 with six ties all-time against the Bruins.
What can the Lightning take away from win No. 2 to help them reverse history in Beantown? We’ll examine the Bolts beatdown of Buffalo in today’s 3 Things.
1. IMPORTANT ROAD WIN
At first glance, Tampa Bay’s victory over Buffalo went pretty much as expected.
The Lightning are the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Buffalo had the worst record in the NHL last season.
Tampa Bay had dominated Buffalo recently, outscoring the Sabres 16-3 in five meetings last season.
But this was a completely different Sabres team. Nine players made their regular-season debut for Buffalo in their opener on Thursday. Only 10 of the 20 players who dressed for the first game of 2014-15 remained on Buffalo’s squad.
That the Lightning were able to continue their success, outclassing Buffalo over the final 40 minutes after an evenly-played opening period, is a good early-season sign.
The Lightning play 11 of their first 16 games away from Amalie Arena to start the season. A loss in the road opener to a Buffalo outfit perceived as one of the weaker teams in the NHL could have been an ominous sign for the remainder of that stretch.
Instead, the Lightning have two wins and all four points from their first two games of the season and are positioning themselves well for a critical fast start.
The name of the game in October and November is to bank as many points as possible. The Lightning did just that with a business-like effort on Saturday.
2. CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC
Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson, in for the hobbled Robin Lehner, who was placed on injured reserve after getting hurt in the season opener, made things difficult for the Lightning in the early going. Johnson slid through the blue paint to block good looks at goal from in close, frustrating the Bolts through the first 20 minutes.
Once Tampa Bay started to get traffic in front of Johnson, however, taking away his clear sight lines to the puck, the Lightning were able to find the back of the net and pull away from the Sabres.
On Erik Condra’s game-opening goal, which came nearly midway through the second period, the first-year Bolt shoveled a rising shot from the point over the right shoulder of Johnson while Valtteri Filppula and Anton Stralman stood lurking in front of the net, making it difficult for Johnson to get a clean look at the puck.
Later, with the Lightning up 3-1, J.T. Brown sealed the win, scoring his eighth career regular season goal in the NHL by positioning himself in the slot, standing his ground against the Sabres’ Cody Franson and getting a tip on Jason Garrison’s shot from the blue line.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Brown was giving up seven inches and nearly 60 pounds to the imposing Franson.
It didn’t matter. Brown still won the battle.
Brown was doing work down low all afternoon for the Lightning. He had a couple rebound tries in the first period that Johnson was able to snuff out, but the right winger continued to fight for loose change in the dirty areas and was rewarded with his first goal of the season.
3. THE TRIPLETS RETURN
Lightning fans expecting to see the Triplets line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov continue the torrid pace they established a year ago were, perhaps, a bit worried with the trio’s diminished production at the start of 2015-16.
The Triplets tallied just five points in seven preseason games – Johnson was shutout completely – and zero in the season-opening win over Philadelphia.
On Saturday, though, the Triplets got uncorked, got on the board and got the puck rolling in the Bolts eventual drubbing of Buffalo.
With the score tied 1-1 and a Lightning power play expiring, Kucherov put his immense skill on display, receiving a cross-ice pass from Johnson on the right dot and slinging a wrist shot into the near top corner of the net over the glove of Johnson the goalie, a world-class snipe from a player rapidly establishing himself as one of the best in the league.
From there, the Lightning rolled.
The Triplets contributed in other areas to the win in Buffalo too. Palat tied a team-high with four shots and had three blocked shots. Johnson, who left the game briefly after absorbing a knee-to-knee hit from Evander Kane, won nine of his 17 faceoffs (53 percent). Kucherov set up quite a few scoring opportunities and had the game-winning goal.
In 2014-15, the Triplets combined for 200 regular season points and were, arguably, the NHL’s best line.
Saturday’s performance gave hope the Triplets could be even better in 2015-16, a nightmarish scenario for the rest of the NHL.