Here are my key takeaways from this Lightning victory, their 16th consecutive triumph against an Eastern Conference opponent.
-The Lightning's puck management improved as the game progressed. It wasn't crisp in the first period and, as a result, they spent a lot of time in the defensive zone. There were icing infractions and turnovers that helped fuel Buffalo's attack. Also credit the Sabres for utilizing a aggressive forecheck that allowed them to effectively pressure the puck in the Lightning defensive zone. (Three first period Sabres power plays also contributed to their puck possession advantage.) In the second period, the Lightning cleaned up many of those issues, however. They owned most of the possession time in the first half of the period (and tied the game at two when Ondrej Palat scored at 7:50). There was one segment in the second half of the frame when they struggled to get pucks deep into the Buffalo end. During that timeframe, the Sabres were able to counter quickly and generate some good looks on Louis Domingue, but he stopped them all and kept the game knotted at two. The third period was the Lightning's cleanest. Yes, they committed a neutral zone turnover that led to Marco Scandella's goal at 5:54, but that was an isolated play. Instead, the Lightning were the ones applying most of the pressure and producing the majority of the scoring chances. They outshot the Sabres, 13-5, in the third and owned a shot attempt advantage of 24-8. After Scandella's goal, they held Buffalo to just two shots over the final 14:06 of the game. Ultimately, their ability to manage the puck better after the opening 20 minutes was a big reason why they won this game.
-Nikita Kucherov, who finished with a goal and two assists, was the best player on the ice. He was dangerous throughout the game, whether he was playing with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson or Steven Stamkos and Palat. The Kucherov-Stamkos reunion was a gradual one - Kucherov had some sporadic shifts with Stamkos and Palat in the second before joining them regularly in the third. The Stamkos-Kucherov-Palat line was electric in that final frame. And Stamkos and Kucherov teamed up on two critical goals. On the shift after Scandella had given Buffalo at 3-2 lead, Stamkos stole an outlet pass from Lawrence Pilut and set up Kucherov for the tying goal. Kucherov returned the favor with just over five minutes left and the teams skating four-on-four. He raced into the offensive zone and fed Stamkos for a shot from the slot that turned out to be the game-winner.
-Domingue, who was playing his first game since December 20, was really sharp during the final 40 minutes. After yielding two goals on 16 first period shots, he stopped 16 of the next 17. Over the final two periods, he gobbled up pucks, so the Sabres didn't have many rebound chances. He made some key saves on Buffalo's isolated scoring chances, including second period stops on Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Middlestadt and Vladimir Sobotka. His last save came late in the third with the Lightning holding a 4-3 lead - he denied Jack Eichel's close-range shorthanded bid.
-The Lightning's penalty kill went 4-4. The Sabres' most dangerous power play chance was their first one. Sam Reinhart scored 30 seconds after that penalty ended, as the Sabres held the puck in the offensive zone for nearly a minute leading up to that goal. But later in the period, the Lightning delivered two excellent kills during overlapping penalties that gave the Sabres a 32-second five-on-three. Then there was the final kill. It began with 6:33 remaining in the third when the game was tied at three. They won the faceoff and cleared the puck down the ice. About 20 seconds later, Eichel took an elbowing penalty. That infraction ended the power play and set up on the four-on-four that led to Stamkos' game-winner.
The Sabres entered this game coming off a loss the night before and were eager to get back in the win column. Sunday in Brooklyn, the Lightning will see an Islanders team that similarly is looking to rebound from a loss (on Saturday afternoon to the Rangers).
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1. Nikita Kucherov - Lightning. Goal and two assists.
2. Steven Stamkos - Lightning. Goal and assist.
3. Ondrej Palat - Lightning. Goal.