Ever since the calendar flipped over to 2018, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s defensive issues and special teams struggles have become more profound. Although they won seven out of 10 games going into their current two-game road trip, the Bolts have struggled suppressing shots and scoring chances.
For the second straight night, those special teams and defensive problems came back to the forefront, leading to a disappointing loss to one of the NHL’s bottom-dwellers during the final game of the team’s annual fathers’ trip.
Sam Reinhart scored a pair of goals while Ryan O’Reilly added a goal and two assists as the Buffalo Sabres (17-30-10) topped the Lightning (38-16-3) by a 5-3 score at the Keybank Center in Buffalo. The loss came on the heels of a 4-3 defeat in Toronto the night before and ended Tampa Bay’s six-game winning streak in Buffalo. The Bolts’ defeat, combined with Boston’s 5-2 win over Calgary, leaves the Lightning with just a one-point lead on the Bruins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Boston has two games in hand.
Although the Lightning’s power play had scored in five of their previous six games, they were doomed by a 1-for-5 performance against Buffalo. In addition, the penalty killers’ struggles continued, as they allowed Buffalo to go 2-for-3 on the power play. Those special teams weren’t so special on a night when Buffalo’s Chad Johnson took on Louis Domingue in a battle of backup goalies.
Some of the defensive problems plaguing the Lightning the night before in Toronto reared their head again early in this contest.
A defensive miscommunication between Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev led to Zemgus Girgensons getting behind the two Lightning defensemen. He promptly dished it in front to a wide-open Nicholas Baptiste. Baptiste, a recent AHL call-up, beat Domingue through the five-hole at the 6:25 mark, putting Buffalo up 1-0.
Halfway through the period, the Sabres held an 8-6 shot advantage while creating better chances. However, the tide actually began to turn thanks to the Lightning’s power play. Following a penalty on Buffalo’s Scott Wilson for closing his hand on the puck, Tampa Bay knotted the game up at the 13:23 mark. Victor Hedman found Nikita Kucherov with a pass in the right circle, where the Lightning sniper put a shot on net. Rather than take his patented one-timer from that spot, he simply flung a low shot on net. Yanni Gourde, camped out in his usual spot in front of the net, tipped it in for his 22nd goal of the season.
The Lightning controlled play for the rest of the period, finishing with a 14-9 edge in shots going into the intermission. Hedman had a particularly strong period, throwing five shots on net as the Bolts had more urgency as the period wore on.
However, Tampa Bay’s Slater Koekkoek took a high-sticking penalty as the opening period expired, and it came back to bite them.
After collecting a pass from Evan Rodrigues, O’Reilly took a shot in close that Domingue denied. Unfortunately for the Bolts, Reinhart tapped the rebound into an open net to give Buffalo a 2-1 lead. Less than a minute later, the Sabres went back on the power play after Tampa Bay was whistled for too many men on the ice. Although they got hemmed in their own zone for almost the entire power play chance, the Lightning managed to kill it off despite Kyle Okposo ringing a shot off the post.
At the 13:04 mark, Tampa Bay received a golden opportunity to tie the game up.
Just seven seconds after Johan Larsson went to the penalty box for slashing, Girgensons took a tripping penalty. As a result, the Bolts found themselves on a 5-on-3 for 1:53. Plenty of time to tie the game up and take advantage, right?
The Lightning mustered a grand total of one shot on goal during that extended two-man advantage. One shot. The final minute of that 5-on-3 was a disaster, as the Lightning nearly gave up a shorthanded goal at the end of the power play, only to see Domingue come up with the save. Over the next several minutes, the Lightning and Sabres engaged in pond hockey, with each team seeing its share of solid chances.
Although the Lightning couldn’t take advantage of the 5-on-3, they pounced on a Buffalo mistake to tie the game with 6:41 left in the second period.
Johnson came out of his crease to play the puck, leaving it for Victor Anitpin. Ryan Callahan forechecked ferociously, trying to force a turnover, which he managed to do. Feeling the pressure, Antipin hurriedly forced a pass in front of his net as Johnson was trying to get back in position. Vlad Namestnikov pounced on the errant pass, depositing the puck into an open cage for his 19th of the season.
Despite the fact they allowed the Lightning to rally from a one-goal deficit for the second time, the Sabres regained the lead when Wilson tipped in a shot by Casey Nelson to restore the lead for Buffalo at 3-2 with 4:13 left on the clock in the second period.
The Lightning’s penalty killing woes continued into the third period as the Sabres added to their lead.
With Tampa Bay beginning to buzz and create chances, Jake Dotchin took an ill-advised, retaliatory slashing penalty that gave Buffalo a power play at the 2:21 mark. It took 1:40, but the Sabres cashed in with their second tally with the man-advantage, as O’Reilly pounced on a rebound off a shot off the boards to extend Buffalo’s lead to 4-2. The goal clearly sunk the Lightning’s spirit, as they seemed listless for the next several minutes of game time. The Bolts took 14 shots in the opening period, only to see them put 15 on net over the final 40 minutes of the game. Buffalo would finish with 33 shots on goal for the night.
With 10:28 left, Tampa Bay got another power play chance and proceeded to do nothing with it. Soon after that power play ended, Callahan gave the Bolts some hope when he knocked home a rebound of a Sergachev shot, cutting the Sabres’ lead to 4-3 with 8:24 remaining. That goal woke the Lightning up for a time, and they began pressing for the equalizer. However, that tying goal never happened, as Reinhart put the game on ice with an empty net goal with 7.1 seconds left on the clock.
Tampa Bay returns to action when they host the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night at 7:30 pm at Amalie Arena.
-The Sabres, who own the worst record in the Eastern Conference, are 3-1-1 in their last five.
-Kucherov now has a four-game point streak and has notched at least one point in five of the Lightning’s last six games.
-This was the Lightning’s ninth set of back-to-back games they’ve played this season. They still have four remaining back-to-backs. Tampa Bay fell to 3-5-1 in the second half of back-to-backs this year.
-Callahan’s goal was just his third of the season and his first at even strength. His previous two goals were an empty-netter at Carolina on October 24 and a shorthanded tally in Philadelphia on January 25.
-Lightning head coach Jon Cooper coached his 400th NHL game.
Our Three Stars of the Game
1st Star: Ryan O’Reilly – Notched a power play goal and a power play assist. His goal proved to be the eventual game-winner.
2nd Star: Scott Wilson – Finished the night with one goal and also had five shots on goal, second-most in the game behind O’Reilly’s six.
3rd Star: Sam Reinhart – Scored two goals, including the opening goal of the contest.
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