The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-3 in another third period comeback. It was a classic performace from Nikita Kucherov. He had a goal and two assists, which isn’t unusual for him. But he controlled the game in a way that one player rarely can. And in the third period, he was so clearly the best player on the ice that he looked like he needs to be called up to some other league higher than the NHL.
Before the game, the team made some big changes to the lineup. First, J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan both returned from injury and Mathieu Joseph was the odd forward out. Then, Anton Stralman was a healthy scratch as he joined the rotation of defenders taking nights off. And finally, Louis Domingue got the start in net over Andrei Vasilevskiy with the team on the first half of a road back to back.
The game started fast for the Lightning. They opened the scoring thirty seconds into the first period on a designed faceoff play. Tyler Johnson won the draw to Brayden Point who dropped the puck to Kucherov. The initial shot didn’t result in a goal but Point picked up the rebound and got the Lightning on the board.
Following the goal, the Sabres answered with a good shift from their top line. They created two flurries in front of Domingue. The first came on a great play by the first-overall pick in the most recent draft Rasmus Dahlin. The second started on a pretty pass from Jack Eichel to Sam Reinhart. The Sabres forward mishandled the puck giving the Lightning a chance to recover. Part of that recovery was Braydon Coburn taking a cross-checking penalty trying to clear the crease.
Buffalo didn’t get much on the power play, but scored immediately after. Reinhart beat Domingue cleanly on a wrist shot from the high slot. Domingue had a good look at it and plenty of time but it went over his glove tying the game.
After the goal, the game was even with the teams exchanging possessions, but neither generating much offense. The Lightning took another penalty with nine minutes left. This time, Steven Stamkos went to the box for tripping after getting sloppy with his stick in the offensive zone.
The Sabres again didn’t get much going on the power play but the Bolts did their best to help them as Yanni Gourde took another penalty creating a 33-second 5-on-3. The Lightning handled it well and proceeded to kill off the remainder of the power play time.
Tampa got their first good shift since early in the game from the Point line with just under four minutes left. They maintained the puck in the offensive zone with some effective cycling and created a good look for Point in the slot.
It looked like the Bolts were going to finish the period strong but with just over ten seconds left, they turned it over in the offensive zone leading to a 2 on 1 back the other direction. Zemgus Girgensons fed a pass to Tage Thompson who biffed the shot only to watch it roll in slow motion past Domingue who had come out of his crease to cut the angle on the rush.
The flukey goal was a fitting end to a period where the Bolts were outplayed and deserved to have that reflected on the scoreboard.
The team seemed to understand the poor quality of their play in the first period and came out better in the second. The top two lines got things started with strong shifts in first minutes of the period creating some good offensive zone time and a couple of decent looks. Of equal importance, they limited Buffalo’s opportunities and for the first eight minutes of the period, most of the action happened in the Sabres defensive zone.
That culminated in a goal for Ondrej Palat on a pretty pass from Mikhail Sergachev with twelve minutes to go in the period. Sergachev was excellent in the second period creating multiple chances and the assist on this goal was his reward for that work.
The Sabres responded to the goal with some improved play of their own. They didn’t regain the control they had in the first period but they did push back against the wave from the opening eight minutes. The best chance came to Casey Mittelstadt on a give-and-go rush attack. Domingue got a piece of the shot sending it off the crossbar.
Buffalo got another good chance with under four minutes to go. They created a 3 on 1 attack but failed to make the most of it. They didn’t pass well and Connor Sheary settled for a shot from the outside that Domingue saved easily. Credit to Dan Girardi and Anthony Cirelli for backchecking hard to support Victor Hedman.
The final minutes were the busiest of the period. The Bolts got a chance when Kucherov slid a pass to the left circle. Tyler Johnson set up to one time it but the puck was bouncing and he didn’t catch it flush.
The Sabres got the final chance of the period when Dahlin stole the puck from Ryan Callahan along the right boards. He skated in cleanly on net and Domingue barely got his blocker on the puck as the superstar rookie tried to pick his spot on the far side of the net.
The Bolts had some better stretches in the second period and managed to tie the game, but still trailed by a wide margin in shots and expected goals both at 5v5 and in all situations.
The second period was a step in the right direction. The third was a tour de force. The Lightning ran roughshod over the Sabres to claim the two points. It started auspiciously with the Sabres scoring six minutes into the frame. Marco Scandella scored on a pass from Jason Pominville on a 2-on-1.
Ryan McDonagh was the only defender back and couldn’t disrupt the pass. Erik Cernak had stepped up in the neutral zone but couldn’t break up the play. And Cedric Paquette was backchecking hard but didn’t get there in time.
A few minutes later, Nikita Kucherov answered for the Lightning. He was dominant all game and showed why he’s in the Hart conversation in the third. He was double-shifted several times earlier in the game and did so even more frequently in the final period.
After the goal, he had another great shift with Brayden Point. It felt like he was on the ice for the whole third period. Every time the Lightning generated a chance, he seemed to be involved.
The game got a little ugly in the second half of the period. It started with some rough stuff in the corner. Kyle Okposo appeared to trip a Lightning player along the boards in what was a borderline slew foot. No penalty was called. Then Johan Larsson got his skate into Sergachev’s and the Bolts defender retaliated with a bad high stick to Larsson’s face.
That resulted in a power play for the Sabres as Sergachev got four minutes while Larsson got two. But 30 seconds into the penalty, Jack Eichel elbowed McDonagh in the head negating the penalty. The contact wasn’t bad but it was contact and the penalty was the correct call.
The Lightning took advantage of the 4 on 4 time. Stamkos and Kucherov combined to give the team the lead as they connected on a rush against Rasmus Ristolainen and Casey Mittelstadt. That’s quite a mismatch and it ended exactly the way one would expect: a goal for the captain.
Lawrence Pilut effectively ended the game for the Sabres by taking a holding penalty with three minutes left. The Lightning weren’t aggressive on the power play and focused instead on making sure they held the lead. But even with that approach, they scored another goal. Ryan Callahan turned back the clock and scored on the power play to put the Lightning ahead 5-3.
The Bolts were not good through the first two periods tonight. But one strong period was enough to beat the Sabres. Credit to Louis Domingue for holding his own when the team was struggling. And even more credit to Nikita Kucherov for looking like the best player in the world in crunch time.
The NHL season is long. The Lightning are one of the best teams in the league and it can be tempting to spend most of the season looking ahead to the playoffs. But sometimes, I have to take a step back and appreciate this team and its players. Tonight is one of those nights. And Kuch is that player.
Every time he touched the puck, it looked like it was going in the back of the net. His shot was as effortless as it was deadly. Every pass found a teammate’s tape. Every guess was correct. Nothing escaped his power of anticipation. For tonight, he was the best player in the world.