As a team looking to make waves in the wide-open Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bolts didn't look quite as dominant as one would like, particularly against a foe jockeying for lottery position and starting a career AHLer in net.
But nothing's free in today's NHL.
A lackluster start was rescued by a mediocre finish, which says all you need to know about how dreadful the Buffalo Sabres have truly been this season.
Buffalo had control of the puck and the game for almost the entire first period, as the Lightning appeared to come out sleepwalking. Matt D'Agostini opened the scoring for the home team with a long wrist shot while skating through the high slot that beat Lightning netminder Ben Bishop cleanly. Rookie defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen recorded his first career NHL assist on the play with a long entry pass (he has two goals this year).
The lead expanded to 2-0 after Mike Kostka made some questionable decisions carrying the puck back into his own zone while trying to elude a relentless Zemgus Girgensons on the forecheck. Kostka bobbled the puck, then swooped towards his own net and cut in front of it rather than safely behind it. Girgensons was able to strip it and play it to the point, where a long shot was tipped behind Bishop by Cody Hogdson.
With less than five minutes remaining in the first period, however, the Sabres remembered they were the Sabres and started allowing the Lightning long forays in their end. Alex Killorn took advantage of lazy slot coverage and one-timed a not-particularly-nice feed from Nikita Kucherov past Matt Hackett to bring the Bolts within a goal. They then made the exact same mistake on a chip-and-charge play from J.T. Brown, who won a battle in the corner and fed a streaking Steven Stamkos for another one-timer in the slot to tie the game 2-2 with just 13 seconds remaining in the opening period.
The Lightning seemed to have their feet under them for the second period, but couldn't find the net in spite of 13 shots on goal during the middle twenty. Both teams killed a power play and neither side managed too much in the way of dangerous chances as the game entered the third period still knotted at two.
The third period is where things got wonky. With the Lightning still pressing a small advantage, former Lightning forward Cory Conacher (now with Buffalo) took a delayed penalty, sending Bishop (whom he was traded for) to the bench for an extra attacker. Steven Stamkos -- that extra forward -- snapped a diagonal pass through the slot to Mike Kostka at the right point that hopped over Kostka's stick, caromed off the wall in front of the benches, and into the vacated net to give the Sabres a 3-2 lead. Conacher was credited with the goal as the last player to touch the puck, and he went straight to the box following his unexpected tally.
Again the Lightning benefited from a Buffalo mistake, as Mike Weber was called for a cross check with Conacher still in the box, sending the Lightning to a 5-on-3 power play. The Lightning moved the puck well with the two-man advantage, evening the score at 3-3 with a deflection play in front of the net from Teddy Purcell to Ryan Callahan.
Neither team managed another great chance to end the game in regulation, so 4v4 overtime was needed. The extra space made the already dangerous Steven Stamkos even more deadly, and he quickly drew a hooking call on Sabres forward Drew Stafford. The 4-on-3 power play was nearly as efficient as the 5-on-3, finishing with a hard one-timer from Stamkos on the right side to give the Lightning a 4-3 victory.
- "Two points are two points right now. They aren't all going to be pretty". That's something Ben Bishop said after a win over the New York Islanders just a couple days ago. A familiar refrain around the Tampa Bay Lightning right now, but at some point, if you want to actually do something when the playoffs begin, the wins probably ought to be pretty. Especially against opponents like Buffalo. The little mistakes need to be cleaned up or there is golf coming to the players' future very soon.
- Overall, the Bolts and Sabres played a fairly even game at 5v5. Tampa Bay had a Corsi For of 53.6%, which is good, but perhaps not as good as it should be versus a team at the very bottom of the league by that metric (41.2% Corsi For for the season).
- Where the Lightning did their real damage was on the power play, converting on 2 of 4 attempts. It's lazy and obvious analysis but the importance of Steven Stamkos as 5v4 weapon simply cannot be overstated. The players themselves continue to heap praise on Ryan Callahan, as well, and he has been doing yeoman's work in front of the net. But the fair share of credit also belongs to 91.
- Cory Conacher's goal goes into the books as an even strength, empty net goal. So Ben Bishop's save percentage is a stellar .929 for this game even though the Lightning technically "allowed" 3 goals on 29 shots.
- The Lightning outshot the Sabres by exactly one shot in each period and overtime. (9-8 in the 1st, 13-12 in the 2nd, 10-9 in the 3rd, and 1-0 in OT).
- Steven Stamkos scored the game-winner on the first (and only) shot of the overtime period.
- The Tampa Bay Lightning have now earned points in 11 consecutive games. They are 7-0-4 in that span, with 91 points. That puts them 2 points behind the Montreal Canadiens for 2nd place in the Atlantic Division. The Habs beat the Florida Panthers 4-1 in Sunrise, so the Lightning thus remain two points back but with a pair of games in hand and a critical head-to-head match-up looming on Tuesday at home.