In broad terms, this was a tale of two games. At the halfway point of the second period, the Sabres had a 4-1 lead. During the final 30 minutes, the Lightning outscored Buffalo, 5-0.
Certainly, the Lightning played much better in the second half of the contest than they did in the opening 30 minutes. And appreciably better than what was a terrible first period. Conversely, the Sabres, who had a determined, hungry start, weren't nearly as sharp during the Lightning's comeback.
But there were some shared, common elements throughout the night. Neither team played well defensively (although the Lightning improved down the stretch - more on in a bit).
In the first period, the Lightning struggled in a number of areas, including their puck management, their gap control, their rush coverage, and defensive zone coverage. The Sabres, as mentioned earlier, were very crisp with the puck during the opening frame. Their high compete level helped them own most of the possession time. But the possession advantage masked their d-zone troubles. The Lightning didn't have the puck in the offensive zone often in the first, but when they did, they had space to make plays. They narrowly missed on a few great looks, including a Cedric Paquette open-net opportunity that went wide. Still, the Sabres carried play for the vast majority of the first. They scored the game's first goal in the final minute of the frame following a Lightning d-zone turnover.
In the second period, the Lightning's puck management and compete-level improved, but their coverage problems continued. They allowed three goals off the rush, as the Sabres added to their lead before the 10-minute mark of the frame.
But that wasn't the whole story of those first 10 minutes. In that first half of the second, the Lightning received three power play chances. It's true that they yielded a shorthanded goal to Jack Eichel at 9:56, but the power play helped them own more possession time than they had in the first. And they generated several good chances on those first three chances in the second and they got a goal from Ondrej Palat.
So maybe those early second period power plays did help the Lightning's game, even though the team was down, 4-1, after Eichel's goal. There were three other key elements during that middle stretch of the period that contributed to the game's momentum shift.
First, Mikhail Sergachev fought and knocked down Jake McCabe after McCabe challenged Sergachev following Sergachev's clean check on Eichel. McCabe's instigation penalty, coupled with the fighting major and 10-minute misconduct, took him off the ice for 17 minutes. That forced the Sabres to play with only five D during that important stretch when the Lightning began their comeback.
Second, shortly after the Lightning power play ended, they took a penalty themselves. A Sabres goal on that power play would have extended the lead to 5-1. But the Lightning delivered a strong penalty kill - and drew a penalty a few seconds before it ended.
Third, Alex Killorn scored on that Lightning power play at 13:52, cutting the deficit to 4-2. That was the goal that decisively changed momentum for the rest of the period. The Lightning dominated the final six minutes of the period, generating numerous chances and getting a breakaway goal from Tyler Johnson to make it 4-3.
The early minutes of the third were wide open, as the teams exchanged dangerous chances. But when Kevin Shattenkirk tied it at four with 13:40 remaining, the Lightning found their defensive game (as promised earlier, more on that momentarily). Jon Cooper had mixed up his forward lines during the second period comeback and Killorn, playing with Cedric Paquette and Pat Maroon, gave the Lightning their first lead at 8:08.
Beginning with the Shattenkirk goal (and especially after Killorn's tally make it 5-4), the Lightning tightened up defensively. They greatly limited Buffalo's possession time during five-on-five play. They also killed two more penalties down the stretch and navigated their way through the final minutes after Buffalo pulled Linus Ullmark for an extra attacker. They received a couple of big blocks during those situations when the Sabres had an extra skater, including a critical one from Sergachev during the second of the two Buffalo power plays.
In the end, the Lightning did outscore their problems in this game. They don't want to have to rely on that formula, but with their dynamic offensive attack, they are capable of doing it. Tonight, it resulted in their fourth straight win - and a nice way to ring in 2020.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1. Alex Killorn - Lightning. Two goals and assist.
2. Tyler Johnson - Lightning. Goal and two assists.
3. Ondrej Palat - Lightning. Goal and assist.