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Sights and Sounds from the First Niagara Center

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay continued to pull out of its early-season offensive slump in Buffalo on Thursday.

Two days prior, the Lightning created numerous scoring chances against Detroit but couldn’t keep shots away from the post, an invisible magnet inside the puck seemingly sending it toward metal and away.

Against the Sabres, those scoring chances found the back of the net.

Steven Stamkos scored his team-leading seventh goal of the season within the first six minutes, Tyler Johnson netted his second goal in three games and Nikita Kucherov capped the first-period explosion with a nifty rebound score from the side of the net in the Bolts’ eventual 4-1 victory.

Andrei Vasilevskiy was spectacular again in his second start of the season, stopping 30-of-31 shots to improve to 2-0-0.

The Lightning have now won two of their last three.

Takeaways from Tampa Bay’s seventh-straight victory over Buffalo ahead.

- Lightning head coach Jon Cooper continued to tinker with his lines on Thursday, moving Valtteri Filppula up to top line with Ondrej Palat (left wing) and Steven Stamkos (center). The shift paid dividends early as Filppula found Stamkos in a soft spot deep in the Buffalo zone on the back post and was able to connect the pass to put the Bolts in the lead.

“I think (Palat) did a good job going through the middle and kind of opening everything up,” Filppula said. “Stammer’s a good player at finding those spots to make the easy pass.”

Alex Killorn joined Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov on the second line, and that combination connected for the Bolts’ second goal as Johnson got open in the slot and fired a wrist shot past Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark, who was pulled after the first period.

“Those three goals, there was a lot of good habits and things that happened, things that we just keep pounding into our guys head,” Cooper said. “…Hopefully we continue to do that.

- Buffalo does a tremendous job honoring its former greats in and around the arena.

Across the street from a Tim Horton’s in Canalside, a shopping/hotel/dining center adjacent to First Niagara Center similar to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s vision for the area surrounding Amalie Arena, a statue of the coffee shop’s namesake stands next to a Metro Rail line.

In front of First Niagara Center, the famed French Connection line of Rene Robert, Gilbert Perreault and Richard Martin is immortalized with a bronze statute that is the centerpiece of the Alumni Plaza, which features five brick columns covered in plaques honoring former players, each column representing a separate decade of Sabres history.

Inside the press box, large pictures of former Buffalo players, coaches and media hang from the walls throughout.

Even the Lightning’s own Dave Andreychuk gets in on the act. Andreychuk’s picture can be found in the locker room tunnel, and at a nearby Italian restaurant frequented by Tampa Bay staffers and visiting media, a picture of former Sabres captains, Andreychuk included, is on display.

Andreychuk spent the majority of his career in Buffalo, playing 12 years and 837 games with the Sabres.

- Following Thursday’s morning skate, Cooper was asked about his team’s slow starts and, specifically, how the Bolts have yet to lead after the first period of any game.

Cooper said it wasn’t as much about the Lightning not being ready to play at the beginning of games but rather a general lack of scoring overall for the team.

“It’s hard to lead when you can’t score,” he said.

The Lightning quickly put that dubious stat to bed later that night.

Tampa Bay scored three first period goals to take a 3-0 lead into the intermission, the first time they held an advantage after the opening period in 15 games.

“It’s unreal that we have to talk about that to be honest,” Cooper said. “We’re so used to being able to score, and now when we do score, it’s like, ‘Holy cow boys, look what we just did.’ We have to wipe that mindset away.”

The Lightning played with a sense of urgency from the start seldom seen this season, and the spirited play was reflected in the scoreboard. By the time the first period came to a close, Buffalo’s crowd was completely out of the game and even a few boos rained down on the Sabres as they exited the ice.

- The Lightning let their foot off the gas coming out of the first intermission and were completely dominated by Buffalo in the second period.

The Sabres had a handful of really good scoring chances early in the period that were turned away by Vasilevskiy, who looked to be in midseason form despite missing the first month of the season after having surgery in early September.

The Lightning played with fire too long, however, and were burned when rookie sensation Jack Eichel got by Andrej Sustr at the blue line and beat Vasilevskiy 4:21 into the second for his fifth goal of the season.

“The first period was middle, the second period was hard and third period was [lowers hand down to ground],” Vasilevskiy joked.

The Sabres continued their attack on the Bolts’ goal throughout the middle frame. By the end of the period, Buffalo had recorded 21 shots on goal, the most the Lightning have allowed in a period all season (previous high came Nov. 1 at Carolina when the Hurricanes put up 18 in the 3rd period).

Vasilevskiy, however, held his ground and was the main reason the Lightning went into the second intermission still up by two despite the lackluster performance of the skaters in front of him.

“He gave us a chance to have a two-goal lead going into the third,” Stamkos said. “He expects that from himself. That’s two games and two wins for him now. Good to get his confidence going.”

- By the way, Eichel is pretty darn good and showed it again Thursday. The Lightning got a first-hand look at the rookie’s skill having played the Sabres three times in the first 15 games.

His move to beat Sustr was something usually seen from an established vet in the league. Every time the puck was on his stick in the offensive zone, he was a threat to either set up a prime scoring chance or have a go at goal himself.

For a kid with a lot of hype coming out of college, he’s certainly delivering on the promise.

- The Lightning and Sabres combined for just five shots in the third period, the Bolts defense tightening significantly to maintain its advantage. Tampa Bay held Buffalo to two shots in the third, the lowest output from an opponent in any period this season.

“Not much action in the third,” Stamkos said. “That might have been a tough period to watch as a fan.”

It wasn’t attractive, but it was effective.

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