Kucherov’s four-point night propels Lightning past Sabres, 5-3

Kucherov is good.

When he is on his game, there is no player in the league better than Nikita Kucherov. On Saturday night he had one of those games. The all-world forward posted three assists and added an empty-net goal to lead the Lightning to a 5-3 win over a Buffalo Sabres team that hung with them every step of the way.

Nick Paul, Brayden Point, Brandon Hagel, and Nick Perbix scored for the Lightning while Brian Elliott made 21 saves on 24 shots. Zemgus Girgensons, Casey Mittelstadt, and Jeff Skinner were the goalscorers for Buffalo while Eric Comrie stopped 25 of 29, including three sensational saves against Kucherov.

Victor Hedman returned to the line-up following his two game absence. Nick Paul, who was banged up at the end of the game against the Carolina Hurricanes was also in the rotation after being listed as doubtful. Coach Cooper did go with a new combination on defense as Haydn Fleury was paired with Ian Cole.

First Period

When the Lightning are on, they attack in waves. If Plan A doesn’t work, they’re on to Plan B in the blink of an eye. Brandon Hagel was able to find some space in the Buffalo zone and he waited for Victor Hedman to get clear on the back post before shuffling the pass to him. Credit to the Sabres backcheck for thwarting the play, but Hedman didn’t stop. He stayed with the puck, spied Nick Paul open in the circle and slid a pass to him. Paul didn’t miss.

Nick Paul (Victor Hedman, Brandon Hagel) 1-0 Lightning

It was one of those periods where there seemed to be a lot more offense then there was. Both teams skated around a lot but when you looked at the shot counter there were only 5 total shots halfway through the period. It’s sometimes tough for goaltenders to stay focused when that happens but both Elliott (on Jeff Skinner) and Comrie (Vlad Namestnikov and Cole Koepke back-to-back) turned aside tough chances.

Nikita Kucherov was sent off for two minutes after a minor collision with Comrie behind the net. The penalty kill did its job. Sure they spent the first 90 seconds trapped in their own zone after two failed clears, but they also shut down any dangerous passing lanes and forced things wide.

Still, they never really recovered, and they were out of sorts after Hedman went to the bench following a collision with Tage Thompson. A shot caromed off the glass behind the Lightning net all the way into the crease and Haydn Fleury overskated it. Zemgus Girgensons did not.

Zemgus Girgensons (Owen Power, Tage Thompson) 1-1

It was a solid first period for the Lightning following the game against Carolina. They dictated much of the play and were fairly responsible with the puck. If the puck doesn’t bounce askew on Fluery they probably get out of the period with the lead.

Coach Cooper will be happy to see the even strength possession stats after 20 minutes as the Lightning outchanced the Sabres 12-6 (5-1 in high-danger chances). The overall numbers were a bit closer thanks to the power play for Buffalo, but holding a young, vigorous team like them to just 14 total shot attempts is pretty solid defense.

Second Period

An early forecheck led to Hagel all alone in front of Comrie. Sadly, he did not convert, mainly because Thompson took his legs out. No goal, but a power play. The first 60 seconds were untidy, and the last 14 were erased by a Lightning penalty (Alex Killorn for hooking). So, not the best special teams start.

As unproductive as their power play way, their kill was the exact opposite. They were much more aggressive at the blueline and Brandon Hagel found himself on a shorthanded breakaway. Comrie stood tall and denied him. Buffalo returned the Lightning’s early favor and ended their power play early with a penalty of their own.

The Lightning thanked them on the scoreboard. They caught the Sabres being a little too aggressive in the middle of the ice and Kucherov started a break with a quick, long pass that allowed Stamkos and Point to work a 3-on-2 odd-man rush to perfection. Comrie had to hold his position to keep Stammer from shooting, and couldn’t get to the far post in time to deny Point on the touch pass from The Captain.

Brayden Point (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov) Power Play, 2-1 Lightning

Give Comrie credit for stoning Kucherov not once, but twice following the goal and keeping things at 2-1.

With Patrick Maroon in the box for being an idiot (officially unsportsmanlike conduct) the Sabres tied it up with a redirection. Casey Mittlestadt was all alone in front of the net and altered the trajectory of Owen Power’s shot from the point. Not much Elliott could do on that one.

Casey Mittelstadt (Owen Power, Kyle Okposo) Power Play, 2-2

Following the flurry of special teams action to start the period, Buffalo had some sustained play in the Lightning zone, but the Tampa Bay defense stood strong. At the other end, Comrie continued to frustrate the top line as he held his ground on a nice spin move by Point, and then snatched a one-timer from Kucherov out of the air.

The Lightning weren’t quite as clean in that period as they were in the first and the Sabres youthful exuberance troubles them at times. That was reflected in the numbers as the 5v5 action was pretty even during the period. The Lightning were down on scoring chances (8-10) but had the better quality (6-5 high-danger), but Comrie was equal to the challenge.

Third Period

The Lightning came out pressing early in the period. For the third time on the night, Comrie denied Kucherov on a prime scoring chance. A shift or two later Nick Paul clanked one off of the iron.

Despite the pressure, the Sabres, and the fact that they played a tough team in Carolina the night before, didn’t wilt. For some reason Tampa Bay thought it would be a wise idea to let 300-goal scorer Jeff Skinner just hang out all by himself off to the side of the net. The unorthodox strategy didn’t work as Skinner took a pass from Alex Tuch and had all night and then some to walk in front of Elliott and tuck it around the sprawled out goaltender.

Jeff Skinner (Alex Tuch, Dylan Cousins) 3-2 Sabres

The Lightning aren’t going to be able to rely on the top line all season long, but for now, that trio is doing yeoman’s work to get point for Tampa Bay. After the fourth line was pinned in their own zone for a shift, Brayden Point and his Larupping Linemates found the equalizer. Kucherov picked off a pass, drove at the net with the puck, and patiently waited for a defender to slide by before feeding it Hagel. The 24-year-old looked to make a mess out of it at first as he whiffed on his initial attempt and was stopped by Comrie on the follow-up. He dug the puck out from under the goalie and was able to eventually stuffed it into the net.

Brandon Hagel (Nikita Kucherov,) 3-3

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

This line right now may be on one of the biggest heaters in Lightning history, They are a threat to score every single time they step on the ice. This time it’s Hagel bringing the puck into the zone who spied Kucherov in the slot and fed it to him. Before he had the puck, Kuch knew he was going to drop it back to Nick Perbix and the rookie didn’t let his teammate down as he ripped a one-timer past Comrie’s glove to give the Lightning the lead. Not a bad time to pick up his first career goal, eh?

Nick Perbix (Nikita Kucherov, Brandon Hagel) 4-3 Lightning

It’s easy to credit the offense on providing the lead, but just as important was Elliott stoning Skinner on a breakaway just prior to the goal. It’s been a solid game for the netminder as he came up big throughout the night.

Kucherov sealed the deal (almost reluctantly) with the empty netter, which capped off a four-point night and his extended his goal scoring streak to six games.

The young Sabres gave them a test, but the Lightning held on and played as close to a complete game as we’ve seen from them all season.