Coming off four consecutive regulation losses in which they had allowed 22 goals, the Lightning responded with a solid, all-around performance in this 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. Excluding the opening 10 and a half minutes of the third period, when the Lightning's play dipped and the Sabres surged, the Bolts were solid in all aspects of the game. They defended hard, took away Buffalo's time and space in all three zones, limited Grade-A scoring chances and won the special teams battle. Additionally, they cut down on some of the turnovers that had hurt them in recent games and were strong in their puck retrieval, particularly in the offensive zone.
Despite a good start in terms of puck possession, the Lightning allowed the first goal. A bouncing puck skipped over a Lightning stick in the neutral zone and created a two-on-one for the Sabres. Matt Moulson finished the chance to give the Sabres an early lead. The Buffalo advantage didn't last long, however. The Sabres took overlapping penalties and the Lightning converted on the ensuing five-on-three. The sequence started with an offensive zone faceoff win, which allowed the Lightning have possession of the puck. Tyler Johnson wired a cross-ice pass to Ondrej Palat, who finished his shot from point-blank range.
Although the first period ended in the 1-1 tie, the Lightning had had the majority of the puck possession and shot attempts (18-11). The game leveled somewhat in the second, as the Sabres pressed the attack. But the Lightning maintained a solid structure defensively and kept the dangerous Buffalo looks to a minimum. At the other end, the Bolts cashed in with two goals, both coming from the line of Palat, Vladdy Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov. The line had a relentless game, enjoying many long shifts in the offensive zone. One of those culminated in the go-ahead goal. Nikita Nestorov stepped to the left circle and fired a low shot on net. Buffalo goalie Anders Nilsson made the initial save, but the rebound came right to Palat in the slot. He one-timed the puck into the top of the net. The third Lightning goal came off the rush. Ben Bishop, making his first start since his December 20th injury, started the sequence with a quick first pass to Anton Stralman. Eventually, Palat took the puck into the offensive zone and left it for Victor Hedman at the left circle. Hedman delivered a cross-ice pass to Kucherov, who buried the shot from the right circle.
The Sabres' best stretch in the game came in the first half of the third. They applied consistent pressure and were rewarded with an Evander Kane goal at 10:30. On the next shift, Bishop was called for a delay of game penalty and the Sabres went on the power play with a chance to tie. But the Bolts produced a strong kill, one that included a couple of shorthanded scoring chances. The outstanding PK helped the Lightning regain momentum and, outside of one more Kane chance on a wraparound after a strange bounce behind the Lightning net, the Sabres' attack was quiet down the stretch. The Lightning also were helped by three Buffalo penalties in the final 4:33 of regulation. Stralman finished the scoring with an empty-net power play goal in the closing seconds.
The performance was a step in the right direction, especially in terms of how well the Lightning defended. Now they must replicate it on Friday against Columbus, the team with the most points in the NHL.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
Palat's second goal, giving the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
- Ondrej Palat - Lightning. Two goals and assist.
- Ben Bishop - Lightning. 24 saves.
- Victor Hedman - Lightning. Assist.