The last place Buffalo Sabres came into town this evening to take on the Eastern Conference leading Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena. Buffalo made things interesting at times, but the Lightning managed to lock the game down in the third period as they secured their 54th win with a 7-5 victory.
It didn’t take long for the Lightning to come alive in this one as the recurring theme of forechecking bore the fruit for the opening goal just 30 seconds in. Anthony Cirelli started the play in the defensive zone by chipping the puck off the boards, around Marco Scandella, and into the offensive zone. Cirelli then pressured Sam Reinhart along the left-wing boards and forced the Sabres winger to make a poor pass off the boards that was promptly intercepted by Yanni Gourde. Gourde held onto the puck for a few seconds before feeding a pass back to Cirelli, who immediately went in front of the net. Cirelli one-timed it past Chad Johnson to make it 1-0 before a minute had elapsed.
To say the crowd exploded is an understatement. It being “Fan Appreciation Night”, the crowd at Amalie Arena was already in a positive mood with the pregame reveal of the Top 25 Favorite Lightning Players. With Cirelli scoring that early, I honestly thought the roof was going to collapse.
Unfortunately, a penalty on Victor Hedman put the Lightning on the penalty kill—before I continue I just want to reiterate how absolutely dumb this penalty was. Hedman swung his stick at a mid-air puck and it went into the netting above the glass. This has to be one of the most idiotic penalties the NHL has in place. Inadvertently putting the puck over the glass when you’re in the defensive zone is asinine. Treat it like an icing—players who are on the ice cannot change, no time-outs can be used, and the faceoff stays in the offensive zone. I’ve said it many times this season whether it has happened against the Lightning or their opponents. It’s dumb.
Alright, I’m done ranting.
Tampa Bay had largely kept the Sabres power play to the outside on this man advantage but were unable to disrupt Buffalo’s passing. Once the Sabres got settled in the offensive zone they quickly moved the puck around the zone, and eventually it landed on the stick of Casey Middlestadt. Middlestadt held onto the puck for a moment before firing a wrist shot through a crowd of bodies and past Andrei Vasilevskiy to tie the game at one just 2:27 after Cirelli gave Tampa Bay the lead. The goal was Middlestadt’s first NHL goal.
Sometimes, the opposing team just plays very well and gets rewarded with a goal, and this is one of those moments. Buffalo did an exceptional job with their puck movement by forcing the Lightning defenders to move more than they wanted to. Middlestadt was wide open for the pass that inevitably led to his goal, but give credit where it’s due—that was a good shot by Middlestadt to take advantage of the traffic in front of Vasilevskiy.
Not to be outdone, however, was Nikita Kucherov, who gave Tampa Bay the lead once again a little over a minute after Buffalo tied it. Kucherov recovered a loose puck along the left-wing boards and then proceeded to try and feed a pass to Brayden Point, who was a little deeper into the zone. The puck then bounced back to Kucherov, and at that point he simply fired it on net. The puck bounced off and over Johnson’s shoulder and into the net to give the Russian winger his 39th goal and 99th point on the season.
Alex Nylander of the Buffalo Sabres continued the wacky scoring pace of the first half of this period. Two minutes after Kucherov gave Tampa Bay the lead, Nylander tipped a rather harmless point shot from Brendan Guhle that completely threw Vasilevskiy off. Initially, the shot was high and to his left. Once Nylander tipped it, the puck altered directions down and to his right. Vasilevskiy still managed to touch the puck, but he was sliding by that point. It went past him and it was tied yet again, with Nylander getting his first NHL goal.
Sam Reinhart would be the center of another poor pass as he threw what could only be called “one of the dumbest plays I’ve seen this season”. Reinhart recovers a loose puck along the right-wing boards and then turns around the pass the puck on his forehand. For some reason, Reinhart completely whiffs on his pass to Rasmus Ristolainen, who was literally a few feet away from him. Cirelli did put a check on Reinhart, but that should not have been enough to mess up a pass that close. Regardless, Killorn recovered the loose puck and lobbed it to Gourde, who was in the slot at this point. Gourde glided towards Johnson and sniped it past the goaltender to give Tampa Bay the lead once again.
Tampa Bay would finally stop shooting themselves in the foot for the remainder of the first (oh, if only that were the case in the second) and dictated play. The Sabres were unable to generate much pressure and repeatedly were hemmed into their own zone. If it wasn’t for that early power-play (which was the result of a dumb rule) and a poor clearing attempt, the Sabres are looking at a three-goal deficit. Instead, the Lightning only had a one-goal lead after the first twenty minutes.
Before the Lightning suddenly forgot they were the top team in the Eastern Conference, Dan Girardi one-timed a pass from Kucherov to give the Lightning some insurance. The assist was Kucherov’s 100th point of the season and he became just the third player in Lightning history to score 100 points in a season.
Where the tone of the game shifted was during a four-minute power-play for the Lightning after Marco Scandella attacked Yanni Gourde along the boards and tried to instigate a fight. Scandella was properly given a double-minor for his altercation, and all Tampa Bay had to do was keep pressure on the Sabres and score a goal. Instead, the Lightning became passive in the offensive zone and seemed to be trying to feed Kucherov so he could net his 40th goal of the year. What this enabled was two shorthanded chances for the Sabres that Vasilevskiy had to stop and an inability to get the puck on the Sabres net.
From then on this period belonged to the Sabres.
Buffalo closed to within one goal after Jason Pominville floated a shot from the point that Vasilevskiy straight up missed. Sure, he was screened, but he moved with the shot and just whiffed on it. Those goals happen, so at that point it wasn’t all doom and gloom. However, a high-sticking penalty on J.T. Miller at 9:55 gave Buffalo even more momentum. Tampa Bay managed to kill it, but the Sabres had a few close chances that could’ve gone in. Once the penalty expired the Sabres continued to control the period.
Jordan Nolan tied it at four after scoring on a wraparound 15:58 into the period. Initially, Vasilevskiy had stopped a shot, but was unable to fully cover it. Nolan poked the puck free, carried it around the net, and managed to have the puck bounce up and over two Lightning defenders and into the net. At this point, sloppiness had taken over for the Lightning.
To add insult to injury, Killorn was sent to the box for hooking not long after and the Sabres went to work on their fourth power-play of the game. Buffalo wasted little time getting established in the offensive zone and moved the puck along the side boards freely. Kyle Okposo received a pass from Jack Eichel and proceeded to wait out Ryan McDonagh as the Lightning defender went down to block a shot attempt. Okposo fired it on net while Vasilevskiy was being screened by Reinhart. The shot hit Vasilevskiy in the lower chest and bounced into the net to give the Sabres their first lead of the game.
I want to reiterate that Tampa Bay led 4-2 at one point, and before they knew it, it was 5-4 Buffalo. Tampa Bay managed to draw a penalty late in the period to carry over into the third, but the Lightning had just allowed the 31st place team to work them over in the second period.
Apparently, the Lightning took their poor second period to heart because they came out fast and aggressive to start the third. Starting a period on the power-play does help, but the Lightning didn’t do much damage on it and only managed two dangerous shots. They did, however, manage to put the Sabres on their heels a bit, which was evidenced by Ondrej Palat getting behind the defense and nearly scoring on a breakaway shortly after the penalty expired.
Tampa Bay continued to attack and force the Sabres to scramble in the defensive zone. Kucherov almost squeezed in a shot from below the goal line but Johnson managed to keep it out. This forced a faceoff in the Sabres zone and the start of Tampa Bay’s comeback.
Cirelli took the draw and managed to tie up Ryan O’Reilly enough so Gourde could recover the puck near the right-wing boards. Gourde then passed it to Mikhail Sergachev at the point where he pulled a defender towards him. At the same time, Killorn had motioned himself from the high slot to the right-wing boards to provide Sergachev with a passing option. Sergachev passed it to Killorn who promptly one-timed it on net. Cirelli, meanwhile, had moved himself in front of the net and managed to tip a piece of Killorn’s shot. The tip was just enough as it got past Johnson and tied the game at five.
Momentum had swung in favor of the Lightning at this point and 45 seconds after Cirelli tied the game it was Killorn yet again setting up another goal, this time for Brayden Point. Tampa Bay’s forecheck has been one of its strongest attributes this season, and Point’s goal represented that yet again.
Point kept the puck alive along the right-wing boards before sending it down to Killorn. Point motioned himself into the high slot—and in-between three Sabres defenders—as Killorn carried the puck up the boards. Once Point was in a shooting position, Killorn fed the puck back to him and the young center one-timed it towards Johnson. On replay, Point’s shot seems to have bounced off a Sabres stick, which caused it to bounce off the ice and up. I’m unsure if Johnson ever got a good read on that shot; nonetheless, the puck went in and Tampa retook the lead.
Tampa Bay continued to control play even after a tripping penalty to Cory Conacher put them on the penalty kill shortly after Point gave them the lead. They managed to lock it down defensively and withstood the late game push by the Sabres to tie it up. Victor Hedman iced the game with an empty-net goal as he lobbed it towards the Sabres end.
Buffalo’s best chance came when Evan Rodrigues’s one-timer hit the post and bounced away from the Lightning net. Rodrigues had found himself wide open below the right faceoff circle and had a gaping net in front of him. However, the puck sat on the heel of his blade and he lifted the shot a little too much.
It wasn’t pretty, by any stretch of the imagination, but Tampa Bay found a way to win. It shouldn’t have been this close against the 31st team in the league, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
Records, records, and more records
The records that individual players achieved in this game:
Nikita Kucherov – 100 points, career high, and only the third Lightning player to ever hit the century mark in a season. Also, he is just the sixth Russian born player to have a 100-point season.
Yanni Gourde – 25 goals and 64 points are now the new record for a Lightning rookie to have in a single season.
Andrei Vasilevskiy – extends the single-season franchise record for goaltender wins in a season with 44
In a season where the Lightning have repeatedly broken franchise marks it was good to see these three players make Lightning history.
After Kucherov notched his 100th point, Tampa Bay looked like they fell asleep. The Buffalo Sabres are not a good hockey team, no matter what anyone says. The fact that they allowed the 31st place team to push them around and make them look pedestrian is embarrassing. They rectified this with a dominant third period, but that second period leaves a poor taste in my mouth.
Playoff teams are going to look at that and see a weakness they can exploit. Tampa Bay has to figure out what is ailing them with their ability to execute their defensive structure.
Let me hear you!