The Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres, two teams on the outside looking in, faced off Saturday night at KeyBank Center trying to keep what ever playoff hopes they both have alive. The Sabres entered the night with 65 points, the Lightning with 66.
The first period was played pretty evenly by both teams. The Sabres did manage though to almost double-up on the Lightning in both shots on goal (15-8) and hits (14-7), while also getting the only goal of the period.
The overly-relied upon Sabres’ power-play got got an opportunity late in the first as Nikita Kucherov got nailed with a questionable hooking penalty. The Sabres top power-play unit wasted little time as Ryan O’ Reilly fired a one-timer past Andre Vasilevskiy with only 12 seconds remaining in the period, giving the Sabres the 1-0 lead.
Jack Eichel, with an assist on the goal, moved into first place in the league with points since February 1st (3G, 17A).
Just as the Sabres manufactured momentum with a late goal in the first period, the Lightning managed to do the same with an early goal in the second. Tyler Johnson evened the score at one by sneaking back-door behind the defense and tipping a Victor Hedman pass past Robin Lehner.
The rest of the second period reflected much of what we saw during the first. Both teams, obviously with a lot at stake, continued to match each other’s level of play.
The third period did not feature any goals, but not for a lack of trying for either team. The Sabres biggest challenge came on a penalty-kill early in the period. The 29th rated penalty-kill managed to fend off a Lightning power-play that’s been flirting with 1st place for most of the year.
The Sabres, with an equally potent power-play got afforded another great opportunity late in the third period after Marcus Foligno drove the net hard, forcing Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman to take a penalty.
The Sabres were unsuccessful with the man-advantage as it carried over into overtime.
The battle of special teams continued as Zemgus Girgensons was nailed with a slashing penalty about halfway through the extra frame. Girgenson’s slash on Tyler Johnson’s stick was an objectively bad call, especially in overtime, yet the Sabres managed to survive the 4-on-3 kill with O’ Reilly, Ristolainen, and Georges out on the ice for the entire two mintues.
Shortly after the kill the Sabres fell victim again to poor officiating as Jack Eichel’s feet were taken out from underneath him as he drove towards the net.
To the dreaded shootout…
Shootouts haven’t been friendly to the Buffalo Sabres for this entire season. Nothing would change tonight as both Reinhart and Eichel were stopped by Vasilevskiy, while Robin Lehner looked awful on both shot attempts by Lightning shooters.
The Sabres certainly played a decent game. While it’s a tough loss to take, it’s nothing like losing to the bottom two teams in the league or coughing up two 2-goal leads, which the Sabres have done recently in their ‘biggest games of the year’.
Shortly after the trade deadline General Manager Tim Murray gave an apparent rousing speech, telling the players he ‘still believes in them’ and is confident in this group. While seemingly out of the playoff race, the Sabres still have a chance to pick up points and at least stay competitive the rest of the way.
But it won’t get any easier.
They’ll get another shot for two points tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Pittsburgh against the Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions.