On this night, thanks to a couple of late empty net goals, the final score definitely didn’t reflect the nature of the game. Despite dominating for most of the game, the Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Buffalo Sabres, 5-1. For the sixth consecutive game the Lightning failed to gain a lead, and though they spent much of the game in the Buffalo zone, they couldn’t find the back of the net more than once as Craig Anderson made 35 saves on 36 shots. Alex Killorn scored the lone Lightning goal while Brian Elliott made 20 saves on 23 shots.
You can usually get away with losing sight of the puck. Sometimes you can get away with leaving a big, fact juicy rebound in the center of the ice. Rarely can you get away with both. That’s exactly what Brian Elliott did early in the first period when Tage Thompson fired a shot in off of the side boards. The puck kicked off the goalie’s pad or blocker, and while Elliott thought it might be in his equipment, it had actually ended up in the middle of the ice where Victor Olofsson easily batted it into the uncovered net.
Another night, another lead to chase.
Other than that play, it was pretty much all Lightning in the first period, especially in the first sixteen minutes of action. They spent most of it in Buffalo’s zone throwing a lot of rubber in the direction of Anderson. According to Natural Stat Trick they had 24 shot attempts with 14 of them reaching the net. As they have all season they dominated the prime scoring chances as they posted 8 High Danger Chances as opposed to Buffalo’s 4.
One of the main reasons they were able to find their groove on offense was that they stayed out of the penalty box (despite the door’s inability to stay closed). Penalties and minutes spent shorthanded have plagued them a bit this season (especially against Colorado), but against Buffalo they were able to keep things at even strength and the Sabres on the back foot.
A lot of the pressure was coming from the points as the blueline accounted for 10 of the 21 shot attempts at 5v5. Unfortunately their chances were left wanting despite their best efforts. Alex Killorn in particular had two Grade-A chances - the first on a nice diagonal, cross-ice pass from Anthony Cirelli that found Killorn alone at the side of the net. With a large portion of the net open, Killer’s swatted backhand found Anderson’s pads instead of the back of the cage.
He would get another chance at the right side of the net that he deflected just wide. However, the third time was a charm as Killorn created a little havoc in front of the net on a Ryan McDonagh shot that hit the goalie’s pads, then off of Killorn and trickled in.
A first period goal! The first of the year for the Lightning.
Now maybe, with a strong second period they could pick up a lead, which would also be the first of the year. For the vast majority of the middle frame it was the Lightning once again dictating play. Their forecheck was humming and causing problems for the Sabres. Every time a Buffalo defenseman or forward corralled a puck in their own zone it seemed like there were three Lightning players ready to relieve them of it.
That led to another period of many opportunities as Tampa Bay fired another 23 shots towards the Buffalo net with 11 of them finding the goaltender. Anderson was sharp again with perhaps his best save of the game denying Boris Katchouk in close off of a rebound from a Taylor Raddysh shot.
Late in the period, Alex Barre-Boulet found Stamkos behind the defense, but The Captain was a little flat-footed and couldn’t get to top speed. Mark Pysk was able to reach in and swat the puck away.
No matter how well you play, you have to play all 20 minutes and try to limit mistakes. The Lightning basically made two mistakes and the Sabres were able to cash in on one of them. Big Save Brian bailed them out on the first mistake as the Ross Colton line (featuring Alex Barre-Boulet) was caught out on the ice way too long. The puck came over to Anders Bjork and he was salivating at the thought of putting it into the back of the net before a streak of white slid across the net and denied him.
A sloppy play between Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak at the end of the period led to Drake Caggiula breaking away. He avoided Sergachev’s backcheck and made a shifty move on Elliott before putting the puck in the back of the net.
Surely after 40 minutes of leaning on them, the Lightning were going to be able to overwhelm the Sabres, right? Not so much. Buffalo had their strongest start to a period and took advantage of another mistake. Mathieu Joseph turned the puck over at the blue line and Vinny Hinostroza made the Lightning pay as he snapped a wrister past Elliott who had drifted a little off his mark.
The Lightning made their comeback effort harder by taking their first penalty of the night (Erik Cernak for crosschecking) with ten minutes left. Honestly, they got away with one as Stamkos shouldered the face of young Dylan Cozens as well, but it went uncalled. Buffalo didn’t score, but they did bleed two minutes off of the clock.
With six minutes to go Coach Cooper pulled Elliott and it didn’t take long for Robert Haag to flip it from his end and into the empty net. At least I think that’s what happened, my ESPN+ feed was late coming back from break.
The Lightning controlled much of the final five minutes as once again they pulled the goaltender. Stamkos was set up for several one-timers, one he missed, the other two Anderson stopped. With 2:30, Buffalo finally got the puck out of the zone and Olofsson finished off the play with an empty netter.
As if to drive home the fact that it just wasn’t the Lightning’s night, Pierre-Edouard Bellemere had the puck jump over his stick on a nice give-and-go that should have ended with a tap-in goal.
Perhaps they were a little worn out from the effort put into the first 40 minutes, but the third period was by far the worst the Lightning played all night. That’s a little out of character for them this year as they had entered the night with 9 third period goals in their previous 5 games.
The good news is that they don’t have time to dwell on the loss as they are right back at it tomorrow night against Pittsburgh.