Slow starts had been a trademark of this 2015-16 Lightning squad, but, in winning their third-straight game over Buffalo this season, the Bolts came out of the locker room for the opening puck drop with a sense of urgency that was reflected on the scoreboard. Tampa Bay stormed out to a three-goal lead and never looked back despite a shaky second period to defeat the Sabres 4-1, their seventh-consecutive victory over Buffalo dating back to last season.
Maybe the Bolts should try this starting strong thing more often.
Three Things we learned from a runaway victory ahead:
1. FIRST PERIOD FUNK NO MORE
Perhaps the Lightning were just tired of answering questions about why they had to play from behind so often this season.
Or maybe they’ve suddenly found the formula to getting off on the right foot.
Whatever the case, the Lightning played their best first period of the season in Buffalo, scoring three times and controlling the game through the first 20 minutes to set the tone for the rest of the game.
“It’s unreal that we even have to talk about that to be honest,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re so used to being able to score, and now when we do score, it’s like, ‘Holy cow boys, look what we just did.’ We’ve got to wipe that mindset away.”
Tampa Bay had only scored five first-period goals all season coming into the Buffalo game.
They came close to doubling that total with three on Thursday.
Valtteri Filppula spotted Steven Stamkos wide open on the back post about six minutes into the first, and Stammer redirected the puck past Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark for the game’s first goal.
On the second score, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn worked a nice little give-and-go, which gave Johnson an open look in the slot for his second goal of the season and second in three games.
Nikita Kucherov capped the first period onslaught, netting his third goal in the last four games with just under two minutes to go in the period by rebounding Vladislav Namestnikov’s backhander into the net.
“When you have a good first period like that and you spot yourself three, you should win that game,” Stamkos said. “It was a start. We’ve just got to put it all together now. We’ve been struggling with the starts. We got the good start (Thursday), and hopefully, we’ll build on that.”
2. VASY CONTINUES TO IMPRESS
In Sunday’s 4-3 victory over Carolina, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said he felt good during his 2015-16 debut but wasn’t perfect by any means.
In start number two Thursday at Buffalo, Vasilevskiy crept closer to that mythical level of perfection.
Vasilevskiy saw 31 shots come his way, and he stopped 30 of them to earn first star honors following the 4-1 win.
“He was the best player on the ice for us,” Cooper said.
After his teammates handed him a 3-0 lead, Vasilevskiy took care of the rest, shutting down the Sabres during their inevitable push in the second period. Buffalo had 21 shots in the middle frame, the most the Lightning have allowed in any period this season, but Vasilevskiy was near-perfect in thwarting the Sabres’ comeback effort, letting in just one when rookie sensation Jack Eichel made a great individual play to get Buffalo on the board.
“(Vasilievskiy) gave us a chance to have a two-goal lead going into the third,” Stamkos said. “That’s what you expect. He expects that from himself.”
In Cooper’s postgame interview, the Lightning coach said Vasilevskiy will see an increase in playing time in the near future as he works to shake off whatever rust remains from his two-month layoff following surgery in September.
“It’s not only Vasy’s deserved starts, but the other thing is, (starting goalie Ben Bishop) has played a lot,” Cooper said. You look at the 60 (games) or whatever he played last year and then he plays another 26 in the playoffs and then has to roll out and play 12 of 14, that’s a lot of hockey. We didn’t anticipate Bish having to play that many games this early on. Vasy’s going to get some games here.”
3. IN THE NIK OF TIME
Who’s been the Lightning’s best player on the current road trip?
My pick: Nikita Kucherov.
His playmaking abilities have been on full display since Carolina. He set up two goals in that 4-3 victory over the Hurricanes, which ended a four-game losing skid for the Bolts.
He scored Tampa Bay’s only goal in Detroit, pouncing on the second rebound during a 5-on-3 power play.
“He’s a danger every time he’s on the ice,” Cooper said prior to the Buffalo game.
Kucherov did nothing to dispel that notion on Thursday.
He found himself perfectly positioned on the post while Namestnikov backhanded a puck toward the Buffalo goal. When the rebound slipped toward him, Kucherov pounced, wristing the puck from a sharp angle into the net with ease.
The 22-year-old forward had a goal and an assist last night to extend his point streak to four games, a season-best for the Lightning so far this year. He has six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in his last four and has been carrying the Bolts’ offense of late.
“I’ve felt more confidence, and I’ve felt like our game is getting back,” Kucherov said. “The first 10 games were crazy. Nothing worked. Now we’re just trying to keep it simple.”