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Lightning surge past Sabres but still show signs of a team finding their identity

A win is a win, but if anyone is thinking this Lightning team is similar to last year’s, then they’re not paying attention.

NHL: NOV 25 Sabres at Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 in a game that saw them play a rather dull style for most of the night. Statistically, Tampa Bay only controlled one period—the third. The first and second saw Buffalo dictate the pace, yet Tampa Bay only trailed for five minutes this evening. A win is a win, but the way the team has played since their Sweden trip has displayed a mixed bag of results—some good, some mediocre.

1st Period

Buffalo at Tampa Bay Gameflow Chart, Corsi For

Obviously, starting the game with a goal in the opening 13 seconds is a great start, and for the most part Tampa Bay controlled the first half of the opening period. The Sam Reinhart goal though left a sour taste. It’s a goal that should’ve never happened, in my opinion.

I don’t have a huge issue with Tampa Bay’s positioning here. Yes, Anthony Cirelli shouldn’t have been caught flat footed, but that’s Jack Eichel rushing through the neutral zone. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak play this about as well as you can. I’d say they could’ve stepped up a half second sooner, but McDonagh barely misses Eichel’s pass and Cernak does manage to disrupt Victor Olofsson’s shot a little. Where this goal hurts the most is from Andrei Vasilevskiy. Normally, he would’ve swallowed the shot and froze play. Instead, it bounces off his chest and directly to Reinhart. To his credit, Vasilevskiy does track the puck immediately and re-positions himself to face Reinhart. What he fails to do is seal his left pad down on the ice, which is right where the puck ends up going.

If I’m going to nitpick, then Alex Killorn would’ve been better served to peel away from Eichel sooner and cover Olofsson. There’s only four skaters on the ice since Nikita Kucherov went for a change after coming out of the offensive zone. That’s why Reinhart has no one near him. At the end of the day, this is a goal the whole team would like to have back.

Once the midway point of the opening period came and went, it was all Buffalo. Tampa Bay didn’t appear slow or disinterested. They struggled to string together consecutive passes and relied a bit too much on the dump and chase strategy. When the Lightning were controlling play in the first half of the period, they were entering and exiting both zones with possession and forcing the Sabres to keep up with them.

Heat Map, Buffalo at Tampa Bay

Overall, it wasn’t a horrendous period for Tampa Bay. However, it wasn’t a good either. After the first 20 minutes, Buffalo controlled 59.38% of the shots at 5v5, led in scoring chances 8-6, and tied Tampa Bay in high danger chances 2-2. They also controlled the quality battle with a 62.73% xGF%. Tampa Bay generated quality chances early, but faltered after the midway point.

2nd Period

The second period was a bit disjointed in its pace. Only 12 minutes of play were at 5v5. If the period ending penalty on Johan Larsson had occurred two minutes earlier then half of the second would’ve been played on special teams. Before any of that happened, Buffalo jumped on Tampa Bay’s predictability at the blueline.

For as brilliant as Mikhail Sergachev can be on any given night, he has to display better awareness here. Jimmy Vesey immediately breaks toward Braydon Coburn and reads Sergachev perfectly. All it takes is a quick glance toward Coburn (or Coburn yelling at Sergachev that he isn’t open) to avoid this kind of unneeded turnover. Vesey might not be the player he was in college, but he’s still a solid NHL player.

Once he reaches Vasilevskiy, he beats the Russian netminder through the five hole to give Buffalo their first lead of the game. This is another goal that I feel Vasilevskiy has little business giving up, but the bigger issue is Sergachev’s turnover in this situation. Fix the turnover and this opportunity doesn’t even occur. It’s small details like this that have bitten the Lightning numerous times this season.

Buffalo at Tampa Bay Gameflow Chart, Corsi For

Tampa Bay did manage to control play for portions of the second period, but Buffalo still managed to dictate the pace for another frame. When Tampa Bay did tie the game and eventually regain the lead, they were pushing the pace, but they flatlined after going up 3-2.

Sergachev redeemed himself later in the period with a power-play goal that snuck past Carter Hutton thanks to a screen from Pat Maroon. Two minutes later, a strong forecheck from the fourth line saw a McDonagh point show deflect off Yanni Gourde’s stick and past Hutton to give Tampa Bay the lead once again. The goals were 2:06 apart. Tampa Bay has had a penchant for scoring goals in quick succession over the past few weeks. Nice to have, but a bit more overall control would be a positive sign moving forward. Two goals from the point are also positives (you take goals from wherever you can get them), but those shots already stand a low chance of going in. The best thing to take away from the McDonagh goal was how it was generated—from a strong forecheck. The process is there for Tampa Bay, they just have to find a way to be more consistent with it

Heat Map, Buffalo at Tampa Bay

In the second, Buffalo controlled 56% of the shot attempts at 5v5, trailed in scoring chances 6-7, and tied the Lightning in high danger chances (one each). The heat map illustrates how the Sabres were firing from anywhere they could, whereas Tampa Bay was centered more in the slot area. That’s great for the Lightning in terms of their shot locations, but their quantity wasn’t anywhere near good enough to offset Buffalo’s. The Sabres won the expected goals battle again 60% to 40%.

3rd Period

Then the whole game got turned on it’s head.

It was as if a switch was flipped and Tampa Bay suddenly remembered who they were. The Lightning throttled Buffalo in the final frame. They forced play into the Sabres zone, kept it there, generated multiple chances, and forechecked their opponent into submission. Tampa Bay controlled 70% of the 5v5 shot attempts, out-chanced Buffalo 9-2, generated six high danger scoring chances while only allowing one, and won the expected goals battle 82% to 18%.

This makes it hilarious that they didn’t even score a 5v5 goal this period. It was the Lightning penalty kill that rose to the occasion this evening with two goals in a span of 49 seconds.

I just want to point out that Jeff Skinner is victimized on both of these goals, and I find that hilarious. The Cedric Paquette goal is more of a bad bounce on Skinner given that he did tip Cirelli’s pass, but the second goal was entirely his fault for blowing coverage. Yes, Buffalo is on the power-play and they’re utilizing the 4-1 strategy, but he cheats down into the slot well before Buffalo has re-established control. The dump in by Brandon Montour rings around the back boards and past Eichel. If Skinner doesn’t cheat into the slot early and instead waits until Buffalo regains control, then maybe Mathieu Joseph and Ondrej Palat don’t score here. Regardless, Buffalo’s over aggression here is Tampa Bay’s to abuse.

Even with a third period that dominant, the overall game picture slightly favors Buffalo. The Sabres controlled 50.85% of the 5v5 shot attempts, tied Tampa Bay in scoring chances at 19, but trailed in high danger chances 9-4. Tampa Bay did manage to edge Buffalo in the quality battle 50.74% to 49.26%. But that is entirely due to their dominant third period. Given the talent disparity between these two teams, Tampa Bay should’ve controlled this game throughout. However, the Lightning appear to play down to inferior teams this season.

Game Flow/Heat Map, Buffalo at Tampa Bay

After Game Thoughts

  • After a shaky start, Vasilevskiy settled into the game and made plenty of great saves to keep Buffalo at two goals. We haven’t seen vintage Vasilevskiy yet this season, but hopefully he will find his groove as the yeaar continues.
  • The Lightning penalty kill has been downright stellar in the month of November. They’ve killed 24 of their past 25 penalties. That unit now sits at a respectable 81.1% (17th in the NHL). If they can find a way to keep this kind of play going, then a perceived weakness could become a strength again.
  • Ondrej Palat scored his 200th NHL assist and 300th NHL point this evening.
  • Erik Cernak will receive a hearing from the Department of Player Safety after elbowing Rasmus Dahlin last night. After seeing replay of it, I’d expect a suspension to come. Length? No idea, the DoPS isn’t known for its ability to be consistent in these situations.
  • Tampa Bay is slowly creeping back into the playoff race as American Thanksgiving approaches. They’re one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for third in the Atlantic with two games in hand (Tampa Bay has games in hand on every team in the NHL).
  • Next up, is their second game against the reigning Stanley Cup champions in the St. Louis Blues. The Blues handled Tampa Bay in their previous meeting. Hopefully, the Lightning find a better way to battle them on Wednesday night.