The Lightning started the game well. They controlled play for the first couple of minutes. But as has happened repeatedly this season, they gave up the first goal less than three minutes into the game on a defensive breakdown.
Andrej Sustr misplayed the puck in the neutral zone, which allowed Buffalo to get out on a two on one. Braydon Coburn made a smart play in aggressively attacking Zemgus Girgensons to try to disrupt the play, but Girgensons was too quick, and one-touched the puck across to Matt Moulson. Moulson put Buffalo ahead, beating Ben Bishop high on the short side.
Within a minute of allowing the goal, Tampa Bay drew a penalty. Buffalo has one of the worst penalty kills in the league and gives up a ton of shots. The Bolts took advantage, applying pressure early in the penalty. The Sabres made a mistake allowing Ondrej Palat to skate in freely from the half boards to the net, and Evander Kane took a desperation penalty to disrupt the shot. With a 5 on 3 for over 40 seconds against a bad penalty kill, Tampa needed to convert. And they did with a tic-tac-toe play from Jonathan Drouin to Tyler Johnson to Ondrej Palat.
The remainder of the period saw Tampa control the pace of play for the most part, but not really create any dangerous chances. They applied some pressure and kept the puck in Buffalo zone but were not able to generate much meaningful offense.
The second period was solid from start to finish for the Bolts. They controlled play for most of the period. Buffalo did manage to create some rush opportunities early in the period, but the Lightning had them covered and didn’t allow many chances for Sabres after the first few minutes.
A little over five minutes into the second, Tampa took the lead as Palat once again beat Anders Nilsson. The goal was setup by a nice sequence of passes from Nikita Kucherov to Vlad Namestnikov to Nikita Nesterov. Nesterov fired a shot that Nilsson saved but pushed straight out into the slot. Palat pounced on it and fired it into the net.
Tampa didn’t settle for having the lead and relax into a defensive structure. They continued to push the game forward, applying pressure on the forecheck and keeping Buffalo in their own zone. They played smart in the neutral zone, denying Buffalo’s attempts to generate offense and quickly pushing the game back the other direction.
With a little under eight minutes to go, the Lightning added another goal. Victor Hedman recovered a loose puck after Palat mishandled it, and fired a royal road ppass to Nikita Kucherov on the back side of the play. Nilsson wasn’t able to get over quick enough to cover and Kucherov beat him high. The play was classic Lightning offense taking advantage of a broken play to beat the defense and goaltender with pure skill.
Buffalo never really threatened to get back in the game for the remainder of the period. Tampa controlled play and continued to keep play focused in the Sabres zone.
The period ended with an unnecessary fight between Hedman and Marcus Foligno. Hedman did not want to engage and didn’t even drop his gloves. For some reason, the officials didn’t step in and instead cleared the net, forcing Hedman to defend himself. Luckily, he held his own and wasn’t injured, but I’m not sure what the officials were looking at to think that there were two willing participants in that fight.
The third period was as expected when one team has a 3-1 lead. Score effects took over and Tampa played more conservatively while Buffalo pushed the pace. They had several dangerous chances and took advantage of one just over halfway through the period. Ben Bishop reached with his stick to try to disrupt a pass. He wasn’t able to do so and dropped his stick in the process. Unfortunately for him, the player who ended up with the puck was Jack Eichel. The young forward lifted a pass over Bishop’s stick to Evander Kane who scored on what should have been Bishop’s stick side.
immediately after the goal, the Lightning took a bogus delay of game penalty when the officials mistakenly thought Ben Bishop knocked the net off its moorings. Instead of the power play giving Buffalo an advantage, the Lightning took control of the game, creating multiple short-handed chances and dominating that two minutes. From that point forward, the Lightning controlled the game.
As the game came to its conclusion, Buffalo entered meltdown mode. Despite being within one goal of forcing overtime, they seemed more interested in hitting and fighting than getting any points out of the game. The spent almost the entire five minutes of the game on the penalty kill, which the Lightning used to coast to a victory. Anton Stralman sealed it with an empty netter to make it 4-2.
The Lightning’s play tonight was encouraging. It wasn’t perfect but it was a step in the right direction. It looked much more like the effort against Nashville than the weekend games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The defense was solid after the big mistake in the first period. The new top line of Palat-Namstnikov-Kucherov looked great. Palat in particular seemed to have one of his best games of the year.
If Tampa can continue to play like this, they should have a chance to earn some better results than we’ve seen over the last couple of months.