The Buffalo Sabres' collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout Marine Midland Arena Tuesday night.
The Sabres escaped with a 2-1 victory over the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning before 17,429. Not only did the victory end a three-game Buffalo losing streak, but it meant the Sabres avoided the distinction of losing to a Tampa Bay team that had gone 1-15-2 in its previous 18 games.
And there was additional good news for Buffalo. Help is on the way in the person of Dominik Hasek. Hasek was cleared to practice with the team and joined the Sabres' workout today.
The all-star goaltender, who has missed 38 games since suffering a groin injury Oct. 29, was the first player on the ice today and later took some shots from Miroslav Satan.
"I don't think it will be a full practice, but it will be a good test for him," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Practice will be more intense for him. He'll see a lot more pucks than he's been used to and a lot more second shots."
When asked how many practices it would take until Hasek was ready to see game action, Ruff replied with a chuckle, "I wish I could give you a mathematical equation, but I don't have it."
Tuesday's game was not one to hang on a museum wall, as neither side had many scoring chances, but Buffalo forward Erik Rasmussen wasn't complaining.
"The biggest thing is that we won," he said. "Now we have to try to put a winning streak together. It doesn't matter how we do it. We have to fix what's been wrong."
There were many more hits than fancy plays in the tight-checking contest. The Sabres came into the game knowing Tampa Bay had lost, 8-2, in Washington on Monday. They knew Ruff had called the game against the Lightning a must-win. And during portions of the first half of the game, they played like a team that was afraid of what a loss would symbolize.
"It was in the backs of our minds, that's for sure," Jay McKee said. "With the way we've been playing, if we lost tonight, I don't know how close to rock bottom you'd call it. I think we were a little bit nervous in understanding how big a game this was."
"It's a matter of getting that first goal," Michael Peca added. "On the last two games on the road, if we get the first goal it's a totally different game. We played well and skated well, but when the other team gets a couple all of a sudden you're playing from behind. When you are a team that's in desperate need of goals and wins, that's not the best atmosphere."
The Sabres finally figured out a way to get the first goal of the game at 11:59 of the second period. Cory Sarich's shot from the slot went wide of the net, but Satan scooped up the rebound. When he came around from behind the net into shooting position, Satan saw that Tampa Bay goalie Dan Cloutier had collided with Petr Svoboda, his own defenseman. Satan easily scored his 24th, with the other assist going to Brian Holzinger.
Less than three minutes later, Buffalo's checking line came through to double the lead. Cloutier got a piece of a slap shot by Rasmussen, but Peca beat everyone to the puck and tapped in his ninth.
"We had been noticing that Tampa Bay's defense was pinching in on the faceoffs," Peca said. "Dixon (Ward) made the pass out to Rasmussen, who shot it. The puck just came out to me."
The assist was a good reward for Rasmussen, who turned in a solid performance throughout the night. He was credited with four hits as he helped set a physical tone to Buffalo's play while working on the checking line. It was one of the reasons he was chosen as the game's first star.
"Without (Vaclav) Varada and (Wayne) Primeau (both injured) in the lineup, he's one guy that has to supply some energy and some hitting," Ruff said. "He went out of his way to finish checks. Defensively he came back and made plays for us. In the last three or four games, he's played pretty sound for us."
The Lightning might have quit at that point, but Darcy Tucker scored with 18:30 left in the third period to narrow the lead to 2-1, and Tampa Bay tried hard the rest of the way.
"Somebody joked that they had guys (playing so well because they were) trying to get traded at the deadline," Peca said.
"I couldn't ask my guys to burn any more fuel in their tanks," Lightning coach Steve Ludzik said. "I'm proud of every one of them."
However, the Sabres limited Tampa Bay's scoring chances the rest of the way, goalie Martin Biron was there when needed, and Buffalo held on.
"At no point were we laughing with the lead," McKee said. "The last week or so we've been playing better defensively. It's due in part to the support from forwards, and we're spending a little more time in the other team's end."
"It's very nice to get a win at home," Ruff said about his team's first victory in the arena since Jan. 1. "It's one win, but it could start something for us. We've got to try to build off that."
Buffalo will have another chance to win in front of the home fans Friday night against the Ottawa Senators.