The Lightning did some things very well in this game – things that were critical in their 4-1 victory. They had a productive first period, scoring three times. And, after a rough second period, they cleaned up their game in the third, which allowed them to close out the Sabres.
But it wasn’t a smooth ride for the Lightning. The improving Sabres were able to generate dangerous looks throughout the game. They forechecked tenaciously and often made it difficult for the Lightning to get out of the d-zone. And the Sabres completely dominated the second period, a frame in which they fired 21 shots on net. If not for the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning might have been in jeopardy of squandering their first period lead.
The first period, however, was a good one for the Lightning. Entering this game, the Lightning had yet to lead a game after one period. In their first 14 regular season games, the Bolts had scored only five first period goals. But they did take a lead after one period in this game. The Lightning applied heavy forechecking pressure to force Buffalo turnovers in the Sabres end.
They also used their speed to create chances off the rush and, as it turned out, all three Lightning goals in the frame came off the rush. Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula and Steven Stamkos teamed up to score the first of those tallies. All three players attacked the offensive zone and after Filppula received a pass from Palat, he threaded a cross-ice feed to Stamkos, who was unguarded at the left circle. Stamkos finished the shot to give the Lightning the lead. On the second goal, Tyler Johnson executed a give-and-go with Alex Killorn and whipped a shot from the slot past Linus Ullmark. Then, with under two minutes left in the period, Nikita Kucherov took an outlet from Braydon Coburn and sped into the offensive zone. He gave the puck to Vladdy Namestnikov, who took a shot from the slot. Ullmark made the save, but Kucherov scored on the rebound in highlight reel fashion. As he was falling to the ice at the side of the net, he lifted the puck across his body over Ullmark to make it 3-0.
Even though the Lightning built that 3-0 lead in the first, the Sabres had their opportunities to score, too. They had a couple of Grade-A chances during a first period power play. David Legwand had a breakaway. Jack Eichel posted two threatening shots off the rush. But Vasilevskiy stopped all eight first period shots he faced.
At points in that first period, the Lightning struggled to clear their d-zone. It didn’t happen often, but it foreshadowed the second period. In that period, the Sabres raised their intensity level. They repeatedly moved pucks into the Lightning end and applied pressure. Sometimes it was off the rush. Other times it was after a dump-in. And whenever the Lightning retrieved pucks in their own end, they had big problems getting pucks out.
Also, the Sabres exhibited a shooting mentality. Within the first five minutes of the period, they had already equaled their first period shot total. One of those went in, when Eichel accepted a long pass at the Lightning blue line, spun free to the left circle and snapped a quick wrister past Vasilevskiy’s glove. But despite relentless pressure for the rest of the frame, the Sabres would get no closer. Buffalo fired 21 shots on net in the period – and Vasilevskiy stopped 20 of them. As a result, the Lightning still had a two-goal lead after 40 minutes.
As a whole, the Lightning’s game settled down in the third. They did a better job of clearing pucks and they spent less time in their own zone. But the Sabres still had some looks, particularly during two wobbly Lightning power play chances in the frame. Fortunately for the Lightning, most of those shot attempts were not on net. The Sabres only put two shots on goal in the period. Eventually, in the final minute, Victor Hedman iced the win with an empty-netter.
So the ride might have been a bumpy one for the Lightning. Credit the Sabres for making a strong push in the second. But the Lightning combined their first period offensive outburst, a good bounce-back third period and a terrific performance from Vasilevskiy to get the victory. And after winning just once in their previous six games, that’s the most important takeaway from this contest.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game:
Vasilevskiy’s 20 second period saves, helping the Lightning take a 3-1 lead into the third period.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1.Andrei Vasilevskiy – Lightning. 30 saves.
2.Nikita Kucherov – Lightning. Goal and assist.
3.Jack Eichel – Sabres. Goal.