There was a Varsity vs. The JV feel Tuesday night in KeyBank Center.
That's where the Sabres are right now. The scoreboard didn't show a huge disparity and neither did the shot counter but this game just had a weird aura to it.
The Sabres outshot Tampa Bay, 34-26. They had nine more shot attempts, won seven more faceoffs and had 11 more hits. Both of the Lightning goals went in off Buffalo players. All in all, the Sabres were far from comatose.
Still, there were times you felt the Lightning were as bored as the fans who bothered to watch this 2-0 slogfest.
It was as if the Bolts felt they could throw in an extra surge of energy if they really needed to. The Sabres didn't have many good scoring chances until the last four minutes with Robin Lehner on the bench. You never felt they were a threat and with the standings the way the were, that's probably what we should have expected.
Even though it hit town on a 1-3 slump, Tampa Bay still owns the NHL's best record at 17-5-2. Coach Jon Cooper said before the game he was interested in seeing his team's response to the first real blip on its season and he got a workmanlike effort.
"Do you want adversity? Probably not," Cooper mused. "But is it a bad thing? Probably not either. You have to learn from these. So many things went right for us that some things came a little bit easy to us. I believe we earned those breaks but it might be a little time now where things aren't coming as easy for us to reset, figure out why we got those breaks and get back to that."
The Lightning certainly got their share of breaks Tuesday. One goal off Johan Larsson's stick, another off Marco Scandella's foot. Puck luck doesn't find the Sabres much these days.
We're not even to December yet and the Sabres are 20 points out of the lead in the Atlantic Division. Yes, twenty. They're 6-15-4 and four points behind the pace of the 2014-15 tank team, which was in the midst of a 10-3 run (that, admittedly, led to its historic 1-17-1 collapse).
The Lightning, on the other hand, are having a huge bounceback year.
The Bolts went to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, losing a six-game battle to Chicago, and fell in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference final at Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay then missed the playoffs last year as Steven Stamkos sat out the final 65 games with a knee injury and a 10-1-1 finish left the Lightning one point short at 94. They would have been a very difficult out.
Maybe that step back is what's fueling this team. Stamkos has NHL highs of 38 points and 26 assists. Linemate Nikita Kucherov had 17 goals, one behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the league lead, and 35 points. The third member of the trio, Vladislav Namestnikov, has 10 goals and 13 assists.
Even with Stamkos and Kucherov now going five games without a goal, this is still the game's most dynamic line. An interesting sidelight is Stamkos' evolution from a former 60-goal scorer to an uber elite playmaker.
Cooper said Stamkos, who was often fed in his early days by Martin St. Louis, isn't feeling the pressure he once did to shoot all the time. Kucherov, best remembered for that ridiculous let-the-puck-slide shootout winner past Robin Lehner here last season, has become a star in his own right.
For Kucherov, it's all about work.
"He came in July. Nobody comes to Tampa in July," Cooper said. "He was renting out the practice rink five days a week from July to training camp, to a point where I was concerned that he'd be burned out. All he does is works at his game. It's all that stuff that nobody ever sees and now you're seeing it. Does he have God-given talent? Yes he does. But does he take it to a different level? He did because he works at his game. It's pretty impressive."
So are the Lightning. They entered the game with 85 goals in 23 games, a ridiculous league-leading average of 3.69 per game.
It's easy to overlook the defense but you shouldn't. At 26, Victor Hedman is a monster in his prime. Braydon Coburn, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi are veterans with plenty of experience. Mikhail Sergachev, all of 19 years old, scored his sixth goal of the season. Alex Nylander, drafted one pick before Sergachev here 17 months ago, better amount to a standout player. Otherwise, that will be another entry to Tim Murray's besmirched legacy.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, again thinking bold, shipped Jonathan Drouin to Montreal over the summer to get Sergachev.
"It's great for me," Sergachev said. "When you're open, you're going to get the puck and when you make a mistake they'll be there for you. It's just amazing. We're playing fast and I like this style. Our 'D' group have helped me a lot. They want me to succeed."
Then there's the answered question in goal. No more Ben Bishop? No problem. Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in wins with 16 while compiling a 2.19 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
"The way he’s been playing at the end of last year and the beginning of this season, it’s been remarkable," Hedman said. "He’s established himself as one of the best goalies in this league I think. Having him back there is helping us a lot."
We're not even to December yet so the Lightning will still have plenty to prove come spring. Even when they're not at their best, they look more than ready for the challenge.