After a rough loss in Pittsburgh on Friday night, the Lightning traveled to Buffalo to take on a Sabres team that was only a point behind them in the race for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. In a hard-fought game the Lightning emerged with the extra point as they beat Buffalo 2-1 in a shootout.
Three-point games are nice when you’re playing someone outside of your conference, but not when you’re trying to gain ground or separation from teams chasing you in the playoff. Luckily, the Lightning emerged on the right side of the three-point game and kept their playoff hopes alive. As Coach Jon Cooper pointed out, it was a big win for the Lightning since they have “used up all of their mulligans.”
Cooper switched up his lineup, scratching Greg McKegg for defender Luke Witkowski. Witkowski, a burly blueliner and captain of the Syracuse Crunch, had been a healthy scratch for almost a month, last appearing in a game on February 7th against Los Angeles. Oddly, Cooper had Witkowski playing literally in McKegg’s position as he spent most of the 10 minutes he was on the ice as he played on the wing with Gabriel Dumont and JT Brown.
The game started off like a boxing prize fight. Both teams were feeling each other out with a few rushes into the offensive zone and some perimeter shots. Then, slowly, the Sabres began to control more of the play. Andrei Vasilevskiy had to make two quick saves down low on Sam Reinhart as Jack Eichel fed the puck to the second year player from behind the net.
Midway through the period the biggest highlight was a four-way collision behind the Buffalo net where Jake Dotchin hit Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson dumping Tyler Johnson. Kulikov would not return to the game, and it was announced that he suffered an upper body injury.
With time winding down in the period Kucherov was called for a hooking penalty because his stick brushed against Jake McCabe in the Buffalo offensive zone. Was it an actual hooking? Hard to say, but it was enough for the referee to raise his arm and send Kucherov to the bad boy box.
The Sabres didn’t waste much time with the man advantage. After digging the puck out of the faceoff it ended up with Rasmus Ristolainen at the point. The towering defender faked a slapshot that froze Vasilevskiy long enough that he couldn’t get over in time to cover the short side. When Ristolainen fed the puck to Ryan O’Reilly, the former Avalanche center (and menace to Tim Hortons in Ontario) was able to sneak a one-timer past the Lightning goalie and Buffalo had the 1-0 lead late in the period.
The Lightning didn’t play badly, but as the period wore on they had trouble getting through the neutral zone and pressing play in the Buffalo end. Vasilevskiy made 14 saves in the first period on his way to another game facing 30-plus shots.
Most of the second period was fought between the blue lines. Neither team could sustain much offensive pressure or cycle the puck down low. While it wasn’t exciting hockey, it did lead to a rather fast moving twenty minutes.
The late first period goal didn’t deflate the Lightning. They were the better team early on and it paid off for them as the Triplets struck again.
Tyler Johnson won an offensive draw back to Kucherov. Nikita found Victor Hedman on the right point, and the Norris candidate fired a pass to the front of the net right to an open Johnson who tapped the puck past the Buffalo netminder. The goal was Johnson’s 19th of the season, and he continues to bounce back from a disappointing 2015-16 season.
Johnson gave all the credit to Hedman, telling Paul Kennedy between periods that all he did was “put his stick out and he [Hedman} hit it.”
The Sabres had a power play chance when Alex Killorn was called for holding at with 13:16 left in the period. Vasilevskiy had to be sharp as Evander Kane was alone with the puck to the goalie’s right. He snapped off a quick shot that the Lightning goaltender easily swallowed up. It was the hardest shot Vasilevskiy had to face in the middle frame as the Lightning defense improved their coverage and suffocated the Sabres’ attack.
With neither team able to generate chances, the period drew to a close tied at one.
After being quiet for most of the game, the Johnathan Drouin, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn line showed some life. Killorn found Drouin with a cross-ice pass in the offensive zone and Robin Lehner had to make a desperation save with his glove to prevent Drouin from giving the Lightning the lead.of the games
Six minutes into the period, the LIghtning finally earned their first power play of the game when Ondrej Palat was taken down to the ice by Josh Georges. While Tampa Bay did an excellent job of controlling the puck in the offensive zone, they weren’t able to get a clear look at the net. As the man-advantage was dwindling, Kucherov did find enough space to fire a puck at the net, unfortunately it hit the outside of the post and deflected away from danger.
Shortly after, Vlad Namestnikov had his best chance of the game when he controlled a bouncing puck right in front of Lehner. The Lightning center wasn’t able to lift it over Lehner’s right pad and the game remained knotted as one.
The teams slugged along for rest of the period with few true chances being generated. Jonathan Drouin lost an edge at a fortunate time and skidded to the ice seconds before Ristolinen buried him with an open ice check.
Drouin, being Drouin, simply got back to his skates and carried the puck into the zone to set up a chance for his line.
With under a minute to go in the game Anton Stralman had to commit a desperation interference as Marcus Folgino had a step on him driving the net and would have been open for a pass from Jack Eichel. The Lightning survived the brief power play to gain a point in regulation, but the penalty carried over to overtime.
The Sabres pressured the Lightning early with the 4-on-3 advantage, but Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette blocked multiple shots to prevent a goal. The Lightning killed the penalty and were rewarded when Zemgus Girgensons yanked Johnson’s stick out of his hands following a faceoff to give them a power play.
Tampa Bay went all skill as they iced four forwards on the power play. The quartet of Kucherov, Drouin, Johnson and Palat generated a few shots, but Lehner was equal to the task. Following the extended play in their zone, Buffalo called a timeout with 1:47 left to go in the game. Coach Cooper replaced Palat with Jake Dotchin and the rookie almost won the game with a blistering slapshot that Lehner just managed to stop.
Following the power play, Jack Eichel had a step on Hedman as he burst into the Lightning’s zone, but the Big Swede was able to make a desperation sweep check to knock the puck out of harm’s way. Time expired in the extra session with the score still tied at one.
Sam Reinhart - denied by Vasilevskiy’s right pad.
Point - scored. Because that’s what he does in the shootout.
Eichel - stopped by Vasilevskiy.
Kucherov - scores...by mistake? As he charges in on Lehner it looks like he’s trying to push the puck to the back of his blade to make a move, but the puck goes under his stick and then through Lehner for the goal. If it was on purpose it was one of the greatest shootout moves of all time.
According to Coach Cooper after the game, Kucherov told Vasilevskiy (presumably in Russian) that he was going to do this. Judge for yourself.
Lightning win 2-1 in a shootout.
Jack Eichel’s assist extended his point streak to nine games...Kucherov has at least one point in his last six games...Hedman’s assist was his career high 43rd of the season...Vasilevskiy has faced 30+ shots in 19 of his 31 starts this season...Vasilevskiy has won three straight games after losing his previous five.