The Buffalo Sabres needed some leadership Sunday night after their worst game of the season the night before. Captain Michael Peca answered that call.
Peca had two goals to pace the Sabres to a 6-3 over the Tampa Bay Lightning before 9,351 in the Ice Palace Sunday night. The win came about 24 hours after Buffalo had been blasted in Florida by the Panthers, and prevented a fruitless road trip.
Peca said he doesn't think about trying to step up his game in such situations. He wants to do it night after night.
"It's there automatically," Peca said about the pressure to perform. "It's something that's placed on your shoulder every night. I try to do it not just coming off a loss, but in each and every game."
"You definitely look for your veteran players to step up and make a difference," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
Peca and linemates Dixon Ward and Vaclav Varada combined for three goals in the game, and they were all important ones. Peca's first came late in the first period. Buffalo had been outplayed in the first 10 minutes despite being tied, 1-1, but Peca redirected a pass into the net from close range to give the Sabres the lead for good.
"Nobody got down whatsoever after the first nine or 10 minutes," Peca said. "We weren't taking the game to them. But we started to turn it up, we took the game over."
Ward's goal came early in the second period to make it 3-1. It was a lucky one, as Ward's attempted pass across the crease to Peca hit the skate of Lightning defenseman Jason Cullimore and deflected into the far corner of the net.
"We're going to take it," Peca said about the fluke goal. "The last two weeks Dixon and I have both been fighting off the flu. We lost some weight, and we didn't have much energy. We just tried to fight through it and do as well as we could offensively. It's good to get some energy back and contribute."
The Sabres eventually built up their lead to 4-1, only to see the Lightning rally early in the third period on goals by Darcy Tucker and Wendel Clark. The rally was a little surprising in the sense that Tampa Bay had plenty of reason to go down quietly in the third period. The Lightning had lost their previous seven games, and they seemed destined to fall into last place in the overall NHL standings.
"No team in this league is going to quit," Ruff said. "I didn't feel comfortable, even at 4-1. We weren't creating many chances. It only takes one shot for everything to tighten up."
The so-called "checking line" came through again in the final seven minutes. Peca ripped a shot from the right side past goalie Bill Ranford to give the Sabres some insurance and complete a five-point night for the line.
"They're playing very well right now," Barnaby said about Peca, Ward and Varada. "It once again shows that we don't really have a first line or a third line. Everyone steps up on a different night."
Barnaby was part of the line that was the Sabres' other offensive threat on the night. He, Curtis Brown and Michal Grosek had a goal each, and the passing on all three goals was superb.
On Brown's goal, Grosek was behind the Tampa Bay net when he threw a back pass to Brown on the left wing. When Brown put the puck in the net, Tampa Bay goalie Corey Schwab was still following Grosek behind the net.
The two lines that scored the goals for the Sabres were the only ones that weren't affected by some massive juggling before the game. Rob Ray was suspended by the league before the game for a match penalty on Saturday. Paul Kruse was out with a groin pull. Miroslav Satan was back but still a little weak with the flu. Buffalo had recalled Erik Rasmussen and Randy Cunneyworth before the game.
"As far as the forwards went, I just put the names in the bucket and started drawing them out to get some line combinations," Ruff said with a laugh. "We tried to simplify things. With the goaltending we get, if we play a strong game defensively we should be able to win a game."
The win prevented the Sabres from going on their second two-game losing streak of the season, and it offered some redemption for the poor showing on Saturday. Ruff was pleased.
"Obviously it was disappointing on all fronts Saturday night. The good news was that we went right back at it (Sunday). It would have been a miserable two or three days if we didn't play (tonight)," he said.
The Sabres will have a much better few days before they get back to work again, Wednesday night at home against Florida.