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Bolts foil the master plan Lightning strike for four in a row

The plan was working to perfection. One of the Sabres' objectives heading into Tuesday's rematch with Tampa Bay was to get the first goal. It would force the Lightning to abandon their defensive philosophy and open up more chances for Buffalo.

Not only did the Sabres score first, they scored second -- and they did it in less time than it takes to cook a bag of microwave popcorn.

After that, however, the game plan received a jolt by the Bolts.

Tampa Bay scored four straight goals to stun the Sabres and the 18,690 fans in First Niagara Center. By the time the Sabres recovered, the Lightning were on their way to a 4-3 victory.

"We started off with good energy, and they get it back in the game," Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said. "You can't get rattled. It's an entire night of hockey. Teams in the NHL are good. You can't expect to shut them down every night.

"You get up, 2-0, you can't feel bad about a couple pucks getting in there. You've got to keep going."

The Lightning dropped the Sabres for the second straight game, giving the home team its first losing streak of the season. They also fell to 0-2 in First Niagara Center.

"Tonight was especially disappointing because you have a team back-to-back, and we didn't get it done," said Miller, who made 19 saves. "We all have to get better. We all have to improve here. It's not good enough at home."

The Sabres couldn't have written a better script to start their first game in Buffalo since Oct. 14. Usual Lightning crasher Thomas Vanek scored just 1:56 after the opening faceoff, giving him 23 goals in 26 games against Tampa. Brad Boyes connected 35 seconds later, giving the Sabres a 2-0 lead after just 2:31.

The fans and Sabres were buzzing. By the end of the first period, however, the electricity -- and the Sabres' lead -- had departed.

The Lightning scored twice in the final seven minutes, including the tying goal with just 59.1 seconds left. Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier got his team within one, and Nate Thompson played pinball from behind the net to stun Buffalo in the closing minute. Thompson merely pushed the puck to the front, where it struck Christian Ehrhoff's skate and Miller's stick to carom into the net.

It was a stunner as silence overtook the building.

"It's a tough one," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We finish the first period with a goal that goes off a skate, and it gives them a little bit of energy."

Tampa continued a run of three straight goals early in the third, again scoring on a deflection. Steven Stamkos got his stick on Matt Gilroy's point shot, and the puck slowly trickled through Miller's pads and over the goal line with 4:48 gone.

For the rest of the period, the game turned into a rerun of Tampa's 3-0 victory Saturday. Scoring chances were minimal.

The Sabres returned to life in the third period with 17 shots. Only one, by Nathan Gerbe, went in. That came with 49.2 seconds left and only after Tampa made it 4-2 on a breakaway goal by Ryan Malone with 1:23 to go.

"We didn't bear down on our scoring chances, myself with the one in the third to tie it up, and if you just don't bear down it's unacceptable," said Gerbe, whose team hosts Columbus on Thursday. "We've got to fix it. That's the good thing about this league. You play so many games that we've got time to rebound."

Tampa goalie Mathieu Garon stopped 36 shots for the victory. He came up with big saves on Jason Pominville and Luke Adam in the closing minutes.

The Sabres had a late power play, but their man-advantage struggles continued. They went 0 for 3 with two shots.

"Guys were working and winning battles a lot better than we did last game," defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "It came down to the fact they capitalized on their scoring chances, and for us, we missed some really good ones. We need to get our special teams going."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com