The Tampa Bay Lightning downed the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 behind a three-point effort from Ondrej Palat on Thursday.
Palat tallied two goals and an assist and Ben Bishop made 24 saves in his return to the crease for the Lightning to earn an important two points over an Atlantic Division foe as the team looks to move into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
The energy level was high in Amalie Arena even before the puck was dropped, as the team welcomed back former captain Martin St. Louis and his family to drop the ceremonial first puck. He received a warm response from the home crowd as he walked onto the ice, settling any concerns that he or the organization may have had about how some fans would react after how his storied Lightning career came to an end at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline.
The Lightning and Sabres, who entered the contest separated by just one point in their quest for the second wild card spot in the conference standings, played a game that had a playoff atmosphere at times. The intensity level was at a high as the second period came to a close and Victor Hedman and Marcus Foligno dropped the gloves and fought each other. It was the sort of moment indicative of two teams who are battling to stay in playoff contention as they approach the mid-point of January.
The Sabres were down 3-1 to open the third period but put a lot of pressure on the Lightning in an attempt to tie, cutting the lead to one goal before Anton Stralman potted an empty netter with just 18 seconds remaining to earn the Lightning their first win of the new year.
Let’s take a closer look at how things played out on Thursday:
At just under three minutes into the period, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Taylor Fedun flipped a puck from the Sabres defensive zone through the neutral zone that bounced into the Lightning’s end and within reach of Zemgus Girgensons. The Latvian forward was able to tap the puck underneath the stick of Braydon Coburn and onto the stick of Matt Moulson who wristed the shot top shelf past Bishop. It was the first shot of the game for either club and gave the Sabres the 1-0 lead.
When Sabres forward Kyle Okposo was called for a slashing penalty at 3:54 of the period, the Lightning were on their first power play of the game and made the most of it. After putting good pressure on in the offensive zone, Evander Kane took a hooking penalty, giving the Lightning a 43-second 5-on-3 opportunity.
The Lightning set up the puck in the Sabres’ zone during the two-man advantage and were able to capitalize quickly. Nikita Kucherov tapped the puck to Jonathan Drouin who immediately fed it cross-ice to Tyler Johnson. Ondrej Palat was parked just outside the crease and Johnson fed a pass across the slot to him. Palat fired it past Anders Nilsson to even the score at 5:37 of the period.
The Lightning killed off an Alex Killorn slashing penalty at just past the midway point the period and the teams were knotted at one goal a piece despite the Lightning outshooting the Sabres, 9-6.
The Lightning continued to move the puck well early in the middle frame and took the lead early after Palat capitalized on a rebound opportunity at just past the five-minute mark. Vladislav Namestnikov passed the puck to Nesterov from just below the Lightning blue line and he fired the puck on net. While Nilsson made the initial save, the rebound popped out to Palat who potted it for his 9th goal of the season.
Hedman picked up a loose puck in the offensive zone and quickly fed the puck to Kucherov at the bottom of the right circle. The Russian winger controlled it momentarily before wristing it into the net before Nilsson could get to his left post. Kucherov’s team-leading 17th goal of the season gave the Lightning a two-goal cushion with 7:02 left in the middle frame.
The period ended with a spirited fight between Hedman and Foligno after a play in front of the Lightning net, leading to each player being awarded five-minute majors for fighting to open the final frame.
Kucherov took a hooking penalty just 44 seconds into the third period, giving the Sabres power play an early opportunity to cut the Lightning lead to one goal. However, the Tampa Bay penalty kill remained perfect for the night and kept the Sabres off the board.
The Sabres pushed hard in the third and made it a one-goal game when Evander Kane beat Bishop, who had lost his stick earlier in the sequence, for his 11th goal of the year at just past the midway point of the frame.
The Sabres continued to play their strongest period of the contest but were unable to beat Bishop to tie the game, even after Kane received a good scoring opportunity on a weird bounce behind the Lightning goal late in the frame.
Just minutes later, Kane was skating past the Lightning net with his stick up and caught Bishop in the mask, which lead to a two-minute penalty for high sticking. After Kane gave the referee’s his opinion on the call, he also received an unsportsmanlike penalty and a 10-minute misconduct. The calls put the Sabres down a man as they attempted to push for the tie.
Desparate to even the game, the Sabres pulled Nilsson late in the Lightning power play but Anton Stralman scored the insurance marker on the empty netter with just 18 seconds left in regulation to secure the victory.
BUF – Matt Moulson (9) assisted by Zemgus Girgensons and Taylor Fedun
TBL – Ondrej Palat (8) assisted by Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin (PP)
TBL – Ondrej Palat (9) assisted by Nikita Nesterov and Vladislav Namestnikov
TBL – Nikita Kucherov (17) assisted by Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat
BUF – Evander Kane (11) assisted by Jack Eichel and Justin Falk
TBL – Anton Stralman (2) assisted by Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle
THW Three Stars
First: Ondrej Palat (two goals, one assist)
Second: Nikita Kucherov (one goal)
Third: Ben Bishop (24 saves, .923 save percentage)
What’s Up Next
Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning
Friday, Jan. 13, 2016
Amalie Arena – 8:00 P.M. EST
Broadcast Channels – Fox Sports Sun, SN, TVAS, FS-O
Buffalo Sabres at Carolina Hurricanes
Friday, Jan. 13, 2016
PNC Arena – 7:30 P.M. EST
Broadcast Channels – FS-CR, MSG-B