TAMPA – Despite an outstanding performance for their goaltender, the Buffalo Sabres were not able to generate enough offense Friday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning to get him a victory.
Michal Neuvirth was especially stellar in the second period as Tampa outshot the Sabres 27-7 in those 20 minutes of play. He was perfect during that stretch, setting a franchise record for saves in a period, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Through two periods, he had stopped 35 shots and finished the night with 45 stops.
However, a goal with 5:18 left on an odd-man rush by Steven Stamkos lifted Tampa to a 2-1 win at Amalie Arena. Cody McCormick scored for Buffalo.
“Neuvy played one hell of a game for us. He deserves a win after that,” Patrick Kaleta said. “We got caught chasing around in our zone a little bit and we’ve just to learn to calm down and play our game. During the game, there’s going to be some momentum switches, but you’ve just got to weather the storm and get through it.”
Stamkos skated in with Jonathan Drouin on the 2-on-1 that won the game with Drouin feeding the Lightning captain for a one-timer down the right wing.
“I was trying to stay patient and then he passed it to Stamkos. I knew he’s going high but he’s such a great shooter and he hit it perfectly,” Neuvirth said.
“…It’s definitely disappointing with the result. We were so close to get at least a point here. We were working hard and a bad break on the goal. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I thought we gave all our best.”
Neuvirth’s biggest save perhaps came on Brett Connolly with 4:15 remaining. Connolly put on a big deke and went wide to the right of the net. He tried to stuff it home, but the attempt was low and Neuvirth, sprawling to his left with his glove along the ice, was able to cover it up and make the save.
“We made a great fake and I bought it the whole way,” Neuvirth said. “I kept my eye on the puck and what a save.”
Other notable stops in the second period included ones on Nikita Kucherov as he skated in alone with 4:58 left and another on Stamkos with 1.9 seconds to play.
Neuvirth also got some help from the crossbar in that period as Anton Stralman rang one off the pipe with 2:11 remaining.
He was perhaps a little rattled when, with 10:06 left in the second, Ryan Callahan landed on his shoulder, causing Neuvirth to be slow to get up. He was evaluated by the medical staff then and between periods and feels like he should be OK.
“I thought he was sensational,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “It was a good sign to see him play the way he did. It’s unfortunate. We just made a bad read at the wrong time. Maybe we shouldn’t have been at that score if it wasn’t for our goaltender, but we were and we just let it slip away.”
In his short tenure with the Sabres, Neuvirth has already had his share of heavy workloads. In his first start with the team on March 13, he made 51 saves, which marked the first time a Sabres goaltender had made at least 50 saves in a game when Dominik Hasek stopped 55 shots on March 1, 1996.
Then he stopped 49 shots on Nov. 7 in a loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Friday was a big bounce-back game for him after he had given up five goals on nine shots in his last start on Saturday against the Jan. 3.
From the middle of the second period on, Tampa Bay kept coming and coming and coming. They were aggressive forecheck and the Buffalo defenders were caught chasing the play. The only thing really in the way of the Lightning and a blowout victory was Michal Neuvirth.
“Jeez, I looked up at the shots one time and they were 12-10. All of a sudden, you look back up, it’s 29-10,” Nolan said. “They just had that barrage at the end of the second period, they jumped their defense. We couldn’t contain them. Their speed and their hockey intelligence really took over. They were just passing around us and doing whatever they wanted at will.
Because Tampa had the puck so often in the Buffalo zone, it was tough for the Sabres to create much of anything offensively.
“There were some shifts where their possession numbers were probably off the charts compared to us,” Drew Stafford said. “Neuvy played absolutely outstanding for us. He gave us a chance to win. Unfortunately we never even got it out of our zone to even try and score a goal for Neuvy.
"He played out of his mind and that’s the kind of goaltending we need that’s going to give us a chance. Unfortunately we couldn’t do it tonight.”
The Lightning took an early lead 3:51 into the game. Valteri Filppula lifted a backhand in tight over Neuvirth to give Tampa a 1-0 lead.
Buffalo has now allowed the first goal in eight-straight games. The last time they opened the scoring was on Dec. 23 in Detroit. That was also the last game they held the lead after one period of play.
Buffalo’s penalty kill showed some urgency in the first period. They killed off two Lightning power plays in the opening frame and were forced to kill one right off the hop in the second when Tyler Myers was called for roughing as time expired in the first.
That aggressiveness paid off 50 seconds into the second when McCormick scored the first shorthanded goal of his career to tie the game. McCormick, skating all alone down the center of the ice in the Tampa Bay zone collected a pass from Kaleta along the halfwall and then sniped a shot top shelf on Ben Bishop.
It was McCormick’s first shorthanded goal of his career and his first of the 2014-15 season. The penalty kill finished a perfect 4-for-4.
“Tonight, penalty kill-wise was a step in the right direction, but we’ve got to build on it,” Kaleta said. “One game is not enough.”
Buffalo finished the road trip 0-4-0 and were outscored 17-5. Their last win on the road came on Nov. 29 in Montreal.
“We want to win. Losing is not acceptable, so whatever it takes to win, that’s what we’re going to have to do,” Kaleta said.
While on the trip, the team has had to play without the veteran leadership of captain Brian Gionta, who has been out since Dec. 21 with an upper-body injury.
“It’s wearing on everybody. That’s where we really miss a guy like Gionta,” Nolan said. “His presence in the room, his leadership, his ability to calm everyone down under situations like this when things go like that, people starting blaming and when he’s around you, he really takes the leadership role. So it’ll be nice to get him back around the team and we’ll settle this thing down.”
They’ll return home for a game Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings. The night will also mark the retirement of Dominik Hasek’s No. 39 to the rafters of First Niagara Center. Fans attending the game are encouraged to be in their seats by 6:45 p.m. for the pregame ceremony.