The Buffalo Sabres aren't shy about admitting it. They adore Patrick Lalime. They repeatedly boast that the jolly backup goaltender is the hardest-working guy on the team. Since most of his chores are done away from the spotlight, they feel he is as underappreciated as they come.
That's why they were thrilled Saturday when his personal milestone coincided with a team goal, one that was three years in the making and had most of Sabreland paying attention.
Buffalo is returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs, thanks to Lalime's 200th career victory.
The Sabres' postseason-clinching celebration began with three first-period goals and continued after the winning puck was placed in Lalime's glove. It was a treasured memento from a lopsided 7-1 blowout of lazy Tampa Bay, one that cemented the Sabres' standing in the top eight of the Eastern Conference with eight games left.
"That's the most important thing," Lalime said. "Since last year we've been talking about doing that, and now we're back in the playoffs. We want to set the bar high and finish strong."
The Northeast Division leaders missed Lord Stanley's tournament the last two seasons and returned last fall eager to get in the bracket. Their 92 points ensure there will be springtime hockey, a festive event that has visited Western New York only twice in the last seven seasons.
"I might even smile," sometimes-surly coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's a good accomplishment, obviously. To get it with the game we played tonight was real good."
The applause that filled the arena was directed at all the players in Blue and Gold. They in turn pushed it toward their netminder. They were miffed when Lalime was mocked in his previous appearance, so for him to stand in the middle of the party was a welcome tribute.
"It's fun to see him get rewarded for it," said right wing Jason Pominville, who handed Lalime the game puck. "Not a lot of goalies can hit that mark. It's a big plateau, and he was able to reach it. Everyone is so excited for him."
Lalime became the 66th goalie in NHL history to join the 200-win club. The 11-year veteran is 200-167 with 16 overtime losses and 32 ties.
"It's really nice to get there," said Lalime, who was 0-4-1 since getting No. 199 on Dec. 29. "It was a hard one to get. The best part about that is the team wins and they just add up."
The 35-year-old made two stellar saves during the second period as part of a 22-stop night. But nearly anyone in the announced crowd of 18,690 could have earned the victory Saturday.
The Lightning, which watched captain Vincent Lecavalier get kicked out for spearing just 6:35 into the game, responded by watching the Sabres skate anywhere they pleased. It was a mismatch that had the patrons starting their goal countdown early and doing the wave for much of the third period.
The scoring output tied the Sabres' highest of the season, matching January's 7-2 win in Phoenix.
With just 8:52 gone, the Sabres had a 3-0 lead and Tampa starting goalie Antero Niittymaki was smashing his stick on the way to the dressing room. Replacement Mike Smith fared no better, getting beat three times in the second period as the Sabres breezed to a 6-0 advantage.
It was the Sabres' fifth victory in six games, the lone blight being Friday's uninspired 4-2 setback to Ottawa. Buffalo doesn't want to look back at that game anymore, now that its future includes a chance to play for the sport's most cherished possession: the Stanley Cup.
"The great thing about this game is you can go back and redeem yourself the next night," said center Derek Roy, who scored three times. "I thought we did that.
>Playoff tickets on sale April 5
The Sabres, who cemented their spot in the postseason Saturday, have announced that playoff tickets will go on sale April 5.
There will be approximately 2,000 tickets available for the four home games in the first round. Prices range from $58 to $173. They will be available starting at 9 a.m. April 5 at the HSBC Arena box office, Tickets.com and all ticketing outlets in Tops Friendly Markets.