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Sabres V Bolts Game 26

When the Buffalo Sabres snapped their losing streak last week, they did it against the best the Eastern Conference had to offer. This week, they did it with the Eastern Conference’s worst, topping the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Saturday night.
It wasn’t a pretty win, but it was just what the doctor ordered. After losing “the season opener” Friday to the Panthers, the Sabres buried their heads and pushed hard for 2 points on Tampa’s home turf. While they had trouble keeping the lead, they clamped down defensively in the third period and kept the ‘Bolts from generating much of anything on offense. In fact, they didn’t let Tampa get a shot on net for the first 13 minutes of the third period.
The game opening goal came about halfway through the first period when Tampa Bay defenseman Marik Malik turned the puck over at the Buffalo blue line. Paul Gaustad flew up the left wall and shot a bullet at ‘Bolts netminder Mike Smith. Smith made the save but was unable to get back in time to stop a rebound attempt from a streaking Drew Stafford, who came up the right side of the ice undetected.
Stafford’s fourth of the year was followed 3:03 later when Buffalo had a breakdown in their own end. Tampa was able to keep the puck in the zone after Lydman tried to fire it up the left wall. The puck made it to Vincent Lecavalier, who made a quick pass to winger Martin St. Louis, who tapped it in past a panicked Ryan Miller. Miller scrambled over to stop the shot, and probably went down too early, but in his defense he never should have had to make the effort the way he did. Clarke Macarthur was all alone in the slot in front of Miller standing absolutely still, leaving St. Louis unchecked and unmanned for the impromptu 2-on-3. If any Sabre deserves to be benched after this game, it’s Macarthur hands down.
Despite Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters being a healthy scratch, there were 2 fights in the first period. The first was between Paul Gaustad and Tampa player Radek Smolinak, though it ended quickly when Gaustad pushed him to the ice. The second was toward the end of the period when Steve Downie flew across the ice and put a hit on Sabres forward Maxim Afinogenov. Adam Mair took exception to this and him and Downie both dropped the gloves. They ended up locked up after a flurry of punches by Mair, who clearly took the fight. This is the spirit the Sabres need to channel more of if they want continued success. Even Jochen Hecht threw down with Lecavaliar toward the end of the second, giving the Tampa star quite the shiner. It didn’t seem like the Sabres were pushed around, despite being out hit 25-12 at the end of the game.
The next 4 goals came in the second period. Derek Roy worked hard with Stafford to keep the puck in the Tampa zone, and were rewarded for their effort. The Sabres forwards kept possession and eventually got the puck back to Toni Lydman, who was manning the point. Lydman returned the puck to Roy, who skated in a circle in an attempt to find a pass, but opted to shoot instead. Vanek, parked in front of the net as usual, tipped the shot past Smith for his 19th of the year.
Vanek’s good fortune was turned aside though, when Tampa scored 37 seconds later. Vanek failed to clear the puck out of the Buffalo zone. He could have easily chipped it away, but he decided that throwing a hip-check on winger Vaclav Prospal was more important and ignored the loose puck. The puck made it to Lecavaliar’s stick, who popped it to defenseman Paul Ranger. When he launched it toward Miller, the puck deflected off the stick of Sabres player Andrej Sekara and sailed over the left shoulder of the Buffalo netminder.
The Sabres took the lead a few minutes later when Lydman, who foiled a Tampa clearing attempt, took a shot from the point into traffic. It deflected off Mair and Hecht and beat Smith for Buffalo’s third of the game. Mair did a good job keeping the puck alive, in a similar way Roy and Stafford did on Buffalo’s second goal – lots of hard work and determination.
Hecht’s third of the year was followed up yet again by Tampa 39 seconds later, when Lydman was checked by Prospal in the Buffalo end and coughed up the puck. Malik picked the puck up and fired it toward the net. It made it on the the stick of Prospal, who skated across a busy Buffalo crease and slapped a backhander past Miller to tie the game for the third time and end scoring in the second period.
About halfway through the third period, Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen passed the puck to Roy, who was parked in the slot. He wristed the shot and burned Smith clean for the game winner. Tampa turned up the pressure in the dying minutes of the game, were given a power-play (which wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for a blatant interference non-call on Sabres call-up Nate Gerbe with 6:24 remaining), and even pulled their goalie in the final minute, but still came up empty handed.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff felt like the Sabres had luck on their side. “We got a couple of redirections that haven’t been going in. You need a little bit of puck luck along the way, and I thought we got some.” And he’s right about that. The Sabres did get some breaks tonight they’ve been missing as of late. However, the Sabres can also attribute this victory to intensely responsible play in the third period, much like their win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Novmeber 28,. As mentioned before, they held the ‘Bolts without a shot for most of the third period, and kept costly turnovers out of their game. They also extended their streak on the penalty kill, killing 6 penalties tonight, and haven’t been scored on shorthanded since a November 22 loss to the New York Islanders.
If the Sabres are going to right the ship, they have to continue to build off the success they found in St. Pete Times Forum. Monday’s game is against the Penguins – a team that is not only working more cohesively than Tampa, but one that will want revenge for last week’s loss. They showed once again that heavy defensive play is their key to winning – will they follow up with another thoughtful and defensive-minded performance in the Mellon Arena, or will they deviate from the formula for success yet again?

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