Lightning Thrown Off Game In Loss To Buffalo

Team lacked energy, looked unprepared against Sabres

“One team that looked like they’re getting close to the playoffs and getting ready to play in the postseason, and one team looked like they weren’t.”

Jon Cooper was brutally honest in his postgame comments after the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. “We just went into Buffalo and lost, what, two weeks ago? And we just played them again and lost. So you’d think, you know, a team that beat you just recently, I don’t know if there’s any more motivation other than ‘okay now, we’ve got them in our own building, let’s take care of business.”

Whether it was a sign of a week in transition, a result of new acquisition Ryan McDonagh being out along with Nikita Kucherov, or Tampa Bay simply letting their guard down at a bad time, the Lightning failed to take care of business on Wednesday as the Sabres scored a tying goal in the third period before the winning tally was notched early in overtime.

The Lightning’s big prize at the trade deadline was defenseman Ryan McDonagh, but with McDonagh still working off an upper body issue the blue-liner was a scratch on Wednesday night. He’s expected to be on meaningful ice for the Lightning by March 6th.

In the meanwhile, it was J.T. Miller’s turn to make his Lightning debut. Miller has been an underspoken part of the deal, but he seeks to fill another hole in the Lightning arsenal. Miller in the 2017-18 season has been good from the faceoff circle, and the Lightning simply have not. He built off his 54.3 faceoff percentage coming in by winning all four of his first period faceoffs on Wednesday night. He’s having a better season in the faceoff circle than any other Lightning centerman, and should he be able to keep that up he’ll help the Lightning tremendously.

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a diving save on a shot by Buffalo Sabres right wing Jason Pominville (29) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The second period belonged to Andrei Vasilevskiy. It’s becoming almost expected that the Lightning will get a strong performance from their goaltender, complete with some highlight reel saves along the way. Vasilevskiy did not disappoint the crowd, stopping a couple of opportunities with the Sabres looking at an open net. That included a pair of stops on an odd man rush, and only the finest of goalies can stop shots off their own rebounds that quickly.

The Amalie Arena crowd showed their appreciation. After a strong Sabres rush was stopped by the starting goaltender and the puck was cleared out of the defensive zone, the Tampa crowd became as loud as they’ve been in weeks. With a team as good as the Lightning are this year, crowds are prone to excitement, but at times when you cheer is almost as important as how loud. Getting up for a clear in a one goal game is a sign of a truly great hockey atmosphere.

Vasilevskiy kept up the amazing performance in the third period. He came well out of net to play a puck, which he turned over. This almost always results in an easy goal for the opposition. In Vasilevskiy’s case, he managed to get all the way back to where he could disrupt the shot and keep it out of net. The shutout couldn’t be preserved, with Evan Rodrigues scoring shortly after that sprawling stop, but Vasilevskiy’s performance once again made the game winnable when it appeared that the rest of the Lightning were having a bit of an off night.

Despite the Sabres’ rough season, they pose an interesting challenge to a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their particular pace of play is exactly the kind that throws off the Lightning’s preferred style of hockey. Buffalo’s slower pace and specific style prevents the Lightning from playing as much in transition, where their skaters’ goal scoring talent and vision for the goal   Defensively, they focus on minimizing shooting lanes, which forces a more deliberate, passing-based attack than the Lightning would prefer.

This is the kind of team the Lightning need to learn how to beat. In their earlier meeting this season with the division rival Boston Bruins, they found the Bruins’ more plodding pace difficult as well. That’s the kind of team the Bolts will inevitably face in the postseason. The good news is that the Lightning never trailed against one of the NHL’s most struggling teams. The bad news is that, at times during the game, it seemed as though the Lightning were relying on Vasilevskiy to keep them in the contest. Keep in mind that not only do the Sabres have one of the worst records in hockey, they’re missing their organizational centerpiece at the moment with Jack Eichel nursing an ankle injury. This is a game the Lightning should have controlled from the opening faceoff, and it just goes to show what a matchup-driven sport hockey can be.

Members of the U.S. women’s gold medal-winning hockey team drop the ceremonial puck for Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan (24) and Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly (90) before an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Lightning, and the Amalie Arena crowd, honored the US Women’s Hockey Team on Wednesday night. Their gold at the Winter Games was likely the United States’ highlight from the entire two week event, and a seminal moment for women’s hockey in the United States. Just a year ago, the women’s team was threatening to sit out an international tournament hosted in America because of disputes with the governing body of USA Hockey. Now, not only are they past that sad chapter but onto a banner year.

Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” filled the arena as the team was introduced.

The Lightning will have little time to dwell on their loss, as they’re scheduled to be back in action Thursday night in Dallas. The Stars visited Amalie Arena back in November, and were handled 6-1 in a game best remembered as Ben Bishop’s return to Tampa. The game is scheduled for 8:30 Eastern.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.