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Sabres' positive run goes south; Loss to Tampa ends winless Florida trip

The Buffalo Sabres boarded their plane for Florida on a 4-1-1 run and feeling good about their game. They trudged back on it for the return flight to Western New York as outclassed losers of two straight.

The Tampa Bay Lightning dealt the Sabres their second straight loss Saturday, earning a 3-1 victory in St. Pete Times Forum. The Sabres were outskated for long stretches, outshined on special teams and just plain left out of the win column during their Sunshine State weekend.

"We were playing fairly well coming in," Sabres right wing Mike Grier said. "We've dug ourselves a hole. We've got two games before the Christmas break, and we've got to hopefully go home and get a couple wins, regroup and hopefully find a way to score some more goals."

The Sabres host Anaheim on Tuesday and Florida on Thursday, and they're assured of reaching Christmas as a subpar team even with a pair of victories. They fell to 13-16-4 with the loss to the Lightning, a setback that would've been much worse if not for the play of Ryan Miller.

The goaltender was the Sabres' best player by far, answering his worst night of the season with one of his best. Miller made 34 saves, and the Lightning was hardly shooting from the perimeter. Miller was under siege from close range on all sides. He was fresh after allowing four goals in just 20 minutes Friday, and he needed to be ready against the potent Tampa attack.

He would've needed a shutout in order to win.

"He played great," left wing Rob Niedermayer said. "You've got to take advantage of that. We didn't."

The Sabres were let down by their power play, which went 0 for 5 and couldn't generate much against the Lightning. They had two chances during the third period with the score 2-1, but they failed to even come close to the tying goal.

The Lightning's power-play unit turned around the game.

The teams were evenly matched through the first half of the second period -- each team had three shots in the opening 10:25 with the game total at 13-10 in Tampa's favor -- but the Lightning took control when Mike Weber took a tripping call and Derek Roy followed with a hooking penalty. The shots quickly ballooned to 27-11 as Tampa scored twice.

The Lightning's first goal came during Weber's infraction, with Simon Gagne alone at the top of the crease for a backhand goal with 7:44 left. Miller singlehandedly prevented the Lightning from striking for a second power-play goal, stoning Steven Stamkos three times with Roy in the box.

Stamkos finally got the better of the Sabres with 1:50 left. Ryan Malone skated around Andrej Sekera to create an odd-man opportunity, pushed a cross-ice pass to a wide-open Martin St. Louis, who sent a pass to the slot for a wide-open Stamkos.

"They capitalized on their power plays, and their special teams did the job," Niedermayer said.

The Sabres' first hard-driving shift of the second got them back in the game before the period expired. Jochen Hecht outskated defenseman Mike Lundin for a loose puck, then knocked him out of the play. Hecht sent a pass to the crease for swift-skating Jason Pominville, who deflected it past Mike Smith with just 47.7 seconds left.

It was one of the few times the Sabres got near Smith, who made 22 saves.

"The second period when they got the power plays, they started to get the edge in play," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought we rebounded at the start of the third, we just didn't get a lot of the second opportunities."

Miller faced a penalty shot with 5:45 left, and he withstood the challenge by Tampa captain Vinny Lecavalier to keep the Sabres within one goal. St. Louis made it a two-goal margin with an empty-netter with 1.6 seconds left.

The game started ominously for the Sabres as Tim Connolly was helped to the dressing room just 92 seconds into the game, with a towel on his face to slow the streaming blood.

The center joined Tampa's Nate Thompson in chasing a loose puck near the corner boards. Connolly put an arm up to try and brace for the coming check, but it didn't work. Thompson drove the oft-injured center facefirst into the boards. As Connolly fell to the ice, Thompson's hip delivered a second strike to the back of Connolly's head, again driving his face into the side wall.

Connolly stayed motionless on the ice while teammate Patrick Kaleta chased Thompson and tried to engage the 6-foot, 210-pounder. Miller kneeled near Connolly, then helped put snow over the red-stained ice while athletic trainer Tim Macre helped Connolly to the back.

He returned for the second period with a full face shield.

"Badly fractured nose," Ruff said.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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>Lightning 3, Sabres 1

Slap shots: Sabres lose for second straight night to end up winless in Florida.… Miller answers four-goal, 20-minute night with impressive 34-save effort.… Pominville's goal in final minute of second eases sting of Lightning's two-goal period.

Fast fact: Patrick Lalime's assist against Florida on Friday was the first by a Sabres goaltender since Nov. 21, 2007.

Next: Anaheim Ducks, 7 p.m. Tuesday in HSBC Arena.

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