For most of the first two periods, this game resembled the first meeting between the clubs, played on December 2 in Buffalo. On that night, the Sabres defended well in their own zone and limited Lightning shots and scoring chances. The Lightning also kept the Buffalo chances to a minimum – it was a 1-1 game through 65 minutes and the Sabres eventually won the shootout.
After two periods of this game, the Lightning had recorded only 11 shots on Jhonas Enroth and the Sabres had posted only 10 shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy. But the Lightning’s 11th shot was a goal, scored by Ondrej Palat in the final minute of the period during a Tampa Bay power play. That goal, which gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead, completely changed the complexion of the rest of the game.
In the third period, the Lightning totally dominated play. They netted three more goals, fired 14 shots on goal and held the Sabres to only one shot. By building on their lead early in the frame – Brett Connolly’s goal at 5:20 – the Lightning took much of the wind out of Buffalo’s sails. The Sabres weren’t able to maintain their stout d-zone coverage and the Bolts took advantage. The Lightning accumulated more scoring chances in the third period than they had in the first two periods combined. After Connolly’s tally, Nikita Kucherov tacked on two more goals, setting the final at 5-1.
But for much of the contest, it was a tie game. There were some things the Lightning did well throughout. For example, they prevented the Sabres from generating many scoring chances. But the Bolts lost a lot of faceoffs throughout the night and, for the first half of the second period, they spent a fair amount of time defending in their own zone. It was only after Palat’s power play goal at 19:02 of the second that the Bolts took control of the game. That’s why it was such a significant tally.
Yet again, the Tyler Johnson-Kucherov-Palat line posed problems for the opposition. Palat finished with a career-best four points (goal and three assists). Kucherov had his two goals plus an assist. And Johnson recorded three assists, including the key helper on Palat’s PPG. On that play, he burst down the right wing into the offensive zone. Buffalo defenseman Josh Gorges attempted to pin Johnson against the boards, but Johnson squeezed past him. He then wired a cross-ice pass to Palat, who roofed his shot. It was Johnson’s speed (and fearlessness) that allowed him to get past Gorges and set up his linemate for the winning goal. As has been the case often this season, the trio was the best line on the ice, for either team.
This game also featured Nikita Nesterov’s NHL debut. The former fifth round pick played an extremely poised game. He finished with 15:02 TOI and a plus one. During the second period, he made a terrific defensive play to deny a open chance for Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis. An impressive first NHL game for Nesterov.
In all, it was a solid win for the Lightning, who held the Sabres to only 11 shots, a new season-best for the Bolts, and just the one goal. They’ve now allowed only four goals in the last three games, a solid defensive trend they’ll look to continue Friday in Pittsburgh.
Happy New Year, everybody!
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game:
Palat’s PPG late in the second, which was the game-winner.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1.Ondrej Palat – Lightning. Goal and three assists for a career-best four points.
2.Tyler Johnson – Lightning. Three assists.
3.Nikita Kucherov – Lightning. Two goals and assist.