Special Teams Sparks Lightning In Win Over Sabres

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point watch as Nikita Kucherov’s shot gets past Buffalo Sabres goalie Carter Hutton during the first period Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

TAMPA — Following a wonderful pregame ceremony on Hockey Fights Cancer night at Amalie Arena in which the Lightning and Sabres lined up on their respective blue lines holding ‘I Fight For’, ‘In Memory Of’ or ‘Survivor’ name cards, the puck dropped on the two teams that met earlier this month in Stockholm.

Nikita Kucherov wasted no time in renewing acquaintance by depositing a wrister from just outside the right circle over Buffalo goaltender Carter Hutton’s left shoulder 13 seconds in.

It certainly didn’t come that easy the rest of the evening, though it looked that way during a third-period penalty kill when Tampa Bay scored twice to open up a tight game and come away with a 5-2 win Monday night.

Leading 3-2 after two periods, the Lightning got some breathing room about midway through the third period by scoring a pair of shorthanded goals with Kevin Shattenkirk off for tripping.

Cedric Paquette took a lead pass from Anthony Cirelli and, while hounded by Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner from behind, put a forehand shot past Hutton for a two-goal lead at 8:17. Forty-nine seconds later, while on a 2-on-1 break, Ondrej Palat put home a right-circle pass from Mathieu Joseph to open up a three-goal bulge.

The shorthanded tallies combined with a second-period powerplay goal by Mikhail Sergachev served as the latest example of how Tampa Bay’s special teams have performed during what is now a three-game win streak.

“I would say the penalty kill was struggling early (in the season), and now we are playing with a lot of confidence on it now,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “The powerplay is getting better. It was a top-10 PP in the first 10 games, but has probably been No. 1 or 2 in the past few weeks. When special teams are rolling, that’s good.”

After falling behind 2-1 on Jimmy Vesey’s breakaway goal, the Lightning got goals by Sergachev and Yanni Gourde 2:06 apart in the middle period to take a 3-2 lead. They then had to kill off to a pair of minors to Gourde at 12:09 and Alex Killorn at 17:07 to maintain the lead.

“The second (period) was tough, we got into penalty trouble,” said Cooper, whose team was without Steven Stamkos for the second straight game due to a lower-body injury. “It was a drain on some guys, but they weathered through it and when we broke down a little bit (goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy) was there for us. I think the turning point for us was to kill those penalties.”

In addition to his shorthanded goal, Palat had a pair of assists, was a plus-two and dished out five hits.

“We knew they played last night, so we just wanted to put the puck deep and have a good forecheck,” said Palat, referring to Buffalo’s 5-2 win at Florida on Monday night. “We did that in the second and third.”

The Lightning have won six of their last eight games, including three over the Sabres, and improved to 12-7-2 for 26 points.

“We’re definitely getting more consistent,” said Ryan McDonagh. “There is a lot of hockey left to be played, but I think our group is realizing what it takes as far as effort level and execution level. We know we are going to get every team’s best every night, no matter where we are at, home or away, and our group is really committed to playing as consistent as we can in all areas.”

Tampa Bay will likely have to be consistent in all areas Wednesday night, when the the defending Stanley Cup champ St. Louis Blues come to Amalie Arena. The puck drops a 7 p.m.

Tom Layberger is also a contributing writer for forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter

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Tom Layberger has been a sports writer, reporter and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Comcast, NBC and The Topps Company. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and globalsportmatters.com. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a USF grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.