Despite a lucky bounce of epic proportions, the Buffalo Sabres could not muster up a winning effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. Steven Stamkos scored his second goal of the game 1:53 into the overtime period to give Tampa Bay a 4-3 win over Buffalo at First Niagara Center.
Stamkos led all scorers in the game with two goals and one assist. Teddy Purcell added two assists for the Lightning. On the Sabres side, Matt D’Agostini, Cody Hodgson, and Cory Conacher scored goals in the loss.
Matt Hackett stopped 29 of 33 shots in the game for the Sabres. Hackett rebounded from a poor outing against Nashville on Thursday night in which he was pulled after giving up four goals on 15 shots in the first period.
“It was huge,” Hackett said of the team’s effort to begin this game. “We came out to play tonight, we were much more focused I thought. The [defense] did a great job keeping shots to the outside for me, and I could see the puck. I thought as a team we battled a lot harder and just focused a lot harder than Nashville.”
Christian Ehrhoff and Rasmus Ristolainen led the way for the Sabres defensively, as they each contributed assists in the first period. Ristolainen in particular was a bright spot for the Sabres, as he played one of his best games since returning to the Sabres. With 24:45 of ice time in the game, Ristolainen topped his personal record for ice time in a game. His previous high was 19:10 back on Oct. 10 against Columbus.
After a sluggish start to the game, the Sabres broke through with two goals in a span of 1:47. D’Agostini opened the scoring at the 12:20 mark of the first, stepping over the blue line and unleashing a wrist shot over Bishop’s right shoulder. Ristolainen registered his first NHL assist on the goal, and Johan Larsson chipped in an assist as well.
Hodgson was able to break open a 2-0 lead, crashing the front of the net and deflecting a point shot that came from Ehrhoff. The scoring effort was due in large part to Zemgus Girgensons forcing a turnover from Lightning defenseman Mike Kostka.
“It’s just hockey. You see a chance there on the puck to pressure them, you just do that,” Girgensons said.
The line of Hodgson, Girgensons, and Brian Flynn showed a tremendous amount of energy, and their hard work was rewarded in the early parts of this game.
“The effort was there,” interim coach Ted Nolan said. “You look at certain things, and I thought Cody Hodgson played a tremendous game tonight; that was one of his better games since I’ve been here. The bright light of Girgensons back in the lineup, and Ristolainen too … looking forward, you’re starting to see bright lights.”
The two first-period goals broke a pair of lengthy goal droughts. Hodgson’s goal was his first in 12 games, while D’Agostini had gone scoreless in 14 contests prior to tonight.
The Lightning would not be denied and they made sure Buffalo’s lead was short-lived. Tampa Bay scored two goals in the final three minutes of the opening period to earn the early 2-2 tie. Killorn buried a shot five-hole against Hackett to put Tampa Bay on the board.
Stamkos tied the game by scoring his first of the game rushing into the play off the bench. J.T. Brown outworked Ehrhoff on the forecheck behind the Buffalo net in order to feed Stamkos. For the Lightning captain, it was his 22nd goal in just 29 games played this season.
After the disappointing end to the period, the Sabres were able to regain their composure, and they defended the front of the net much better at even strength for the remainder of the game.
“Of course it was tough to let those two goals in when you have such a good start, but that’s hockey,” Girgensons said. “It will happen to good teams and bad teams. We’ve got to find a way to battle back.”
“The reason they got those two goals is the reason why we’re in 30th place,” Nolan said. “We’re puck-staring, and you go and review it in the locker room over and over again, you can’t puck-stare. Against a team like Tampa and all five of us were looking, and Stamkos sneaks into a certain spot, those things happen.
“I thought [in] the first period, we played well except for the last two minutes, and then we responded the rest of the game.”
After a scoreless second period, a crazy goal was credited to Conacher to give Buffalo a 3-2 lead with 11:46 to play in regulation. After Conacher was called for a delayed penalty, an errant pass by Stamkos missed its target and bounced off the side wall all the way into the vacant Lightning net.
“We were on the perfect angle on the bench,” Nolan said. “As soon as we saw the bank, almost 90 percent of us on the bench thought it was going in, so it was a good break for us.”
“It was just funny. I’ve never really seen anything like that,” Girgensons added.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the goal for Conacher was the first for a player following his own delayed penalty since Phoenix’s Viktor Tikhonov did the same against Vancouver on March 21, 2009.
Conacher was still given a hooking penalty following the goal, and with Mike Weber joining Conacher in the box after a cross checking penalty, Tampa Bay cashed in on the ensuing 5-on-3 chance. Ryan Callahan found an opening working in front of the net and buried a pass from Teddy Purcell to knot the game at three goals apiece.
In overtime, though, it was Stamkos who provided the game-winning goal. The Tampa Bay captain is one of the most electric scorers in the league, and on this night in Buffalo, Stamkos proved how quickly he could change the complexion of a game.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best in the league at getting those looks,” Drew Stafford said of Stamkos. “He put one in his own net even. After getting a break like that, I thought we maybe deserved a little bit better. I’m proud of the guys in here for coming out and having a better effort compared to Nashville.
“We can at least take that, it’s just unfortunate that a couple of breakdowns ended up in the back of our net.”
The Sabres have two days to work on some of their shortcomings before their next contest. The New Jersey Devils will visit First Niagara Center on Tuesday before the Sabres leave for a three-game road trip.