Despite sitting near the bottom of the NHL, the Sabres have been impressive at giving the home fans reason to celebrate. On one of the biggest party nights of the year, the sellout crowd had to find its entertainment elsewhere.
Unless, of course, some masochist is a fan of nonexistent offense and defensive breakdowns.
Tampa Bay muzzled the Sabres and their fans Wednesday night and left First Niagara Center with a 5-1 victory. Buffalo was 9-2 in its previous 11 home games, but the recent team slide took precedence. The Sabres stumbled to 1-5-1 in their last seven overall, and this one turned ugly during the final period.
The Lightning outshot the Sabres, 14-1, during the final 20 minutes and scored three times to pull away. Tampa finished the game with a 25-11 shot advantage as Buffalo generated next to nothing.
“We didn’t play the way we needed to in order to give ourselves a chance to win,” alternate captain Josh Gorges said. “When you are doing the right things and playing the right way, you give yourself a chance to win. You’re not going to win every night, even if you play a good game, but you give yourself a chance.
“You play the way we played tonight and some of the other nights lately, you don’t have a chance. It’s just not the right way to play hockey.
The Lightning have a well-earned reputation as an offensive juggernaut, but their defense helped send the 19,070 fans toward the exits with plenty of time left on the clock. The faithful who remained unleashed a Bronx cheer with 4:40 left when Matt Moulson’s mundane attempt from the blue line reached Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, giving Buffalo its only shot of the third.
“We’re there for two periods, then in the third we got outplayed badly and lose the game,” Sabres right wing Tyler Ennis said. “It’s frustrating for everyone.”
Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth let his frustration out. As the clock struck zero, the netminder broke his stick in half across the goal post and threw it over the net. He lobbed an obscenity to no one in particular as he bolted from the dressing room.
Enroth had reason to be angry. He had little to no chance on any of the goals, most of which came on cross-ice plays or from the doorstep.
“We didn’t do a very good job of clearing out guys on the back door for Jhonas,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “We really hung him out to dry.”
The Sabres’ terrible ending took away from a decent opening two periods, at least from an effort standpoint. Buffalo held Tampa, which is second in the league in scoring, to just 11 shots through 40 minutes.
But the Lighting scored a power-play goal with 58 seconds remaining in the middle period to take a 2-1 lead. Once they made it 3-1 with 5:20 gone in the third, the game was over.
“The early one took the wind out our sails there,” Weber said. “We just never recovered.”
It was a standoff early. The teams boosted their shooting percentages during the first period, trading goals despite a total of just 10 shots. Tampa scored once on six attempts, while the Sabres found the net once on only four.
The Lightning’s Matt Carle opened the scoring with 7:48 gone, taking a cross-ice pass from Ondrej Palat and ripping it through traffic and Enroth. Buffalo’s beleaguered power play took advantage of a fortunate hop to tie it five minutes later. Ennis’ blast from near the right point hit the stick of Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman and bounced by rookie goalie Vasilevskiy.
The Sabres’ slumping penalty kill was on the ice when Tampa went up, 2-1. The unit has allowed eight goals in the last seven games. Even if the penalty kill had been perfect, not many teams are going to win with just 11 shots.
“We knew what we had in front of us coming into this, and I think we got outworked,” center Cody McCormick said. “That’s not something that we want to creep into our game.”
The Lightning summoned Vasilevskiy, one of their top prospects, from Syracuse for his fourth NHL game. The 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft is in his inaugural season in North America after excelling in the Kontinental Hockey League. He has a .919 save percentage in the minors and put up a .940 in his first three starts with Tampa.
Lightning starter Ben Bishop is 18-6-2 with a .914 and 2.29 goals-against average, while usual backup Evgeni Nabokov is 3-4-2 with a .893 save percentage.
“These aren’t circumstances where Vasilevskiy is coming in to take a job,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “I guess if his play goes above and beyond, we’d have to re-evaluate. But our goal with Vasy is coming and learning the North American league game, and you’re learning in the exact league you should be doing it. Three-fourths of our team learned it in that league, as well as their coach, so it’s proven to work.”