Burns: 3 Things we learned from outlasting Buffalo
Beat writer Bryan Burns recaps the Lightning's 2-1 shootout victory over the Sabres on Thursday nightby Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com
Tampa Bay didn't play one of its better games of the season Thursday night at AMALIE Arena versus the Buffalo Sabres.
Probably wasn't even in the top half of its performances.
Yet, here we are again, breaking down another Lightning victory, this one a 2-1 shootout win to improve to 47-11-4 (98 pts.).
The Bolts have made a habit of finding different ways to win games this season. Of late, those victories have come rather easily.
The win over Buffalo was anything but. The Sabres netted the game's opening goal at 18:13 of the first period, the first time in the last seven games the Lightning didn't score first.
Nikita Kucherov leveled the score midway through the second after finishing a 2-on-1 rush with Tyler Johnson. Both teams had chances to pull ahead over the final 30 minutes of regulation and overtime, neither able to break through. The game was chippy. It was intense. Brayden Point and Jeff Skinner got involved in a near-fight toward the end of regulation. Kucherov was none to happy get cross-checked in the head by Rasmus Ristolainen in overtime and let out his anger on the Sabres defenseman.
In the shootout, Steven Stamkos (1st round) and Kucherov (3rd round) were each true with their shots, while Andrei Vasilevskiy denied both attempts by Buffalo to cap off the hard-fought victory.
Tampa Bay's performance against Buffalo probably won't make cut for the end-of-regular-season highlight reel.
But the Lightning will certainly take the win and the two points they garnered as a result.
Video: BUF@TBL: Kucherov reaches the century mark in points
1. KUCHEROV MAKES HISTORY
With the Lightning trailing 1-0 and struggling to get anything going offensively, Nikita Kucherov, like he's done so often this season, was the one to spark the Bolts.
Kucherov stole the puck from Zach Bogosian as he was about to take an open shot in the slot at the Lightning net, starting a 2-on-1 break the other way. Kucherov dished off to his left for Tyler Johnson, who carried the puck into the zone, waited for Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin to commit and slide down to the ice, then hooked a pass around Dahlin for Kucherov to one-time into the back of the net and tie the game.
"Once I got it past the D-man, I know it was pretty much in," Johnson said.
The goal was the 100th point of the season for Kucherov, a remarkable achievement just 62 games into the season. Kucherov became just the sixth NHL player since 1993-94 to reach 100 points in 62 games or less and the first since Mario Lemieux accomplished the feat in 61 games during the 1996-97 season.
Kucherov has recorded back-to-back 100-point seasons. He's the first Lightning player ever to reach 100 points in multiple seasons.
Asked after the game what the number meant to him, Kucherov, as is typical, deflected, not wanting to talk about his personal accomplishments but rather focusing on the team's success.
"It was a special moment," Kucherov said, the only insight he would offer into how he felt about the achievement. "I thought we played really well, and, most importantly, it was two points for us."
His teammates and head coach were more effusive in their praise of Kucherov and his remarkable season.
"The biggest thing for me is how excited the guys were for him," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "To do it in 62 games, I think in the last 20 years he's in some pretty elite company to do that. He's doing it on a team that's having a lot of success, and he's a huge part of that."
"It's kind of hard to believe but then you watch the games and see the chances he creates every night and you understand why he's got that many points," Lightning center and Kucherov's linemate Brayden Point said. "He just makes our team better and his linemates and whoever he's on the ice with better. It's pretty impressive to see. It's awesome for him."
We're all witness to one of the greatest individual seasons in Tampa Bay Lightning history. And by the time the regular season has concluded, Kucherov's season will likely be the greatest in Lightning history.
Video: Jon Cooper on the shootout win vs. BUF
2. PENALTY KILL PROVIDES LIFT
The Lightning penalty kill has been one of the team's better storylines all season.
One of the worst special teams units in the NHL last season, the penalty kill is almost at the top of the League standings in 2018-19, currently sitting in second place at 85.4 percent, just two-tenths of a point behind Arizona's top ranked penalty kill unit (85.6%).
Against Buffalo, the PK was the catalyst for Tampa Bay's victory.
The Sabres were awarded a four-minute power play midway through the second period after J.T. Miller was hit with a double minor for high-sticking. The moment was a golden opportunity for Buffalo, a chance to get one, maybe even two power-play goals to jump out to a lead against a Lightning team that had been overwhelming teams at the start of games of late.
Buffalo, however, was never able to get set up in the offensive zone for any stretches of play to threaten the Lightning net. The extended power play ended with a whimper, the Bolts effectively limiting the Sabres to a handful of shots from the perimeter that Andrei Vasilevskiy had no trouble snaring.
The Sabres would go on two more power plays throughout the remainder of the game. The Lightning ended up with more shots and quality scoring opportunities on the penalty kill than the Sabres were able to muster with those man-advantages.
That work on the kill, particularly in a tight game where one goal could dramatically shift the momentum of the game, was one of the main reasons the Lightning walked out of their home arena Thursday night with another victory, their eighth in a row, tied for their longest win streak of the season.
And with Arizona's No. 1 penalty kill unit well within reach, how cool would it be to see the Lightning finish the regular season with the best power play in the League to go with the top penalty kill?
Can't imagine that's happened too often.
Video: Johnson on Kucherov's goal
3. NOT BACKING DOWN
Buffalo made a concerted effort to get under the Lightning's skin in the final game of their four-game regular season series.
There was a dustup between Jeff Skinner and Brayden Point where Point landed a number of solid uppercuts to Skinner's head as the two tussled and fell to the ground, their wrestling match continuing on the ice.
Skinner yelled at Point from his penalty box. Point gave it right back to Skinner.
Later, in overtime, Rasmus Ristolainen took a shot at Kucherov at the side of the net, cross-checking Kucherov in the head and sending him to the ice. Kucherov got right back up and went after Ristolainen with a fury rarely seen from the Russian winger. Officials had a difficult time getting in between the two and breaking up the skirmish as Kucherov wanted Ristolainen to pay for his transgression.
"They came out hard and they're desperate for points," Kucherov said after the shootout victory. "We like when it's competitive and every team gives us 100 percent. It's good for us when we play against teams who do that."
The Sabres attempted to do what a number of teams have game planned against the Lightning: try to outmuscle them and agitate and get under their skin to the point they abandon their normal style of play to retaliate.
Problem is, this Lightning team has an edge to it too and seems entirely comfortable getting into a physical, borderline violent style of game. The Lightning haven't backed down from a challenge yet this season.
The Buffalo contest was no exception.
The extracurricular skirmishes seemed to fire up the Lightning more than distract them. When Kucherov converted his third-round shootout attempt to ice the victory, there was a little extra swag in his celebration.
This team really can prevail in any style of game required to win.
Thursday's result was just one more example.