The Tampa Bay Lightning found out Tuesday just how hard it is to beat a team four times in a season, let alone four times in the first 17 games.
The Lightning ran into a determined Buffalo team in a 4-1 loss to the Sabres at Amalie Arena. The Sabres felt they deserved a better result from their last two games against the Bolts and set out Tuesday to prove it.
Buffalo grabbed the lead 5:52 into the game on Jack Eichel’s power-play goal and led throughout, except for a brief hiccup in the second when Steven Stamkos leveled the score for the Lightning. Forty eight seconds later, the Sabres retook the lead on Cody Franson’s goal and never looked back.
The 4-1 loss was the largest defeat of the season for the Lightning.
So where do the Bolts go from here? We’ll examine Tuesday’s lackluster performance in today’s 3 Things.
1. FALSE START
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said in his experience in the National Hockey League, the first period back after a long road trip is usually a battle for the home team.
The Lightning clearly didn’t win that fight on Tuesday.
Tampa Bay was hemmed in its defensive zone from the opening puck drop until Eichel’s team-leading sixth goal of the season, the Bolts unable to string together more than a couple passes against the Sabres’ forecheck before losing the puck and watching the Sabres dump it right back in.
Buffalo continued hammering away at the Lightning throughout the opening period. By its conclusion, the Bolts were outshot 11-5 and inspired little confidence they could rally in the final 40 minutes.
“I don’t think our start was where we wanted it to be,” Lightning alternate captain Ryan Callahan said. “…It needs to be there. We should have. After that, I thought we built on our game and started to play better and better, but, at the end of the day, it wasn’t what it needed to be."
Tampa Bay has dealt with slow starts all season. The Lightning were the last team in the NHL to hold a lead after the first period when they went up on Buffalo 3-0 through 20 minutes on Nov. 5 in the 15th game of the season.
The issue had been corrected it seemed in recent games, but Tuesday, the Lightning reverted back to their old ways.
And it cost them.
2. THE KILLER
The Lightning, embarrassed by their first-period performance, entered the second with renewed purpose and were rewarded 52 seconds in when Steven Stamkos connected on the power play on a patented one-time rip from the left circle to level the score 1-1.
The momentum was short-lived, however.
Less than a minute later, Franson took advantage of Vladislav Namestnikov’s slip in the middle of the ice to get free in the right circle and snap a shot over the right shoulder of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Following the game, Cooper said the Sabres’ go-ahead goal was a “tough one” for the Bolts to swallow.
“You could tell we were kind of feeling a good vibe on the bench, and then we gave that one up so now we’re chasing the game a little bit,” he said. “It’s tough when you don’t get to play with the lead.”
The Lightning were never able to fully recover. They had chances to tie the game again, but Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson played superbly to hold the Bolts at bay.
Once Marcus Foligno sent an innocuous-looking shot on net early in the third period that Vasilevskiy mishandled for the Sabres’ third goal, the deficit became too much to overcome for Tampa Bay.
3. CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT
The most frustrating part about the Lightning’s play through the first 17 games is their inability to string together quality performances from game to game.
At times, the Lightning have shown glimpses of the team that outscored the league last season and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
Too often, however, those glimpses are few and far between.
The Bolts look like they’ve righted the ship in Carolina only to lose three of their next four.
A strong, albeit goalless, outing in Minnesota is followed by a subpar performance against Buffalo.
The consistency level is just not there for Tampa Bay at the moment. Last season, the Lightning were perhaps the steadiest team in the NHL, going the entire regular season without losing more than two-straight games.
“Our biggest issue is our consistency and execution in all three zones,” Lightning associate head coach Rick Bowness said Wednesday. “…As coaches, it’s our jobs to bring it to the players’ attention to realize that we have to play a lot more consistently moving forward.”
Bowness suggested one of the reasons the Lightning are struggling with their consistency is because every team they’re playing is bringing their ‘A’ game in an attempt to knock off the defending Eastern Conference champions.
“We haven’t seen a ‘B’ game yet this year,” he said. “We’re going to see the same thing from the Flames (Thursday). The consistency that I’m talking about to battle, that has to improve. And to play to our standards, that’s what we’re struggling with.”