TAMPA -- Perhaps there is no more maddening aspect to the Buffalo Sabres' season than the way they've played against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts are the NHL's best team by a mile, 17 points ahead of Calgary and on pace to threaten the all-time record of 132 points set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. But they struggle every time they see Buffalo.
The Sabres went 1-2-1 against Tampa Bay this season after Thursday night's 2-1 shootout loss in Amalie Arena. In both of the regulation losses, they led in the third period. They skate with the Lightning every time they match up. There's passion all over the ice. Some real jam and snarl. The goaltending is sharp, too.
It's the kind of hockey that would produce plenty of points against lesser opponents, but it's a style the Sabres rarely seem to find. Perhaps the fear of embarrassment by Tampa's legion of superstars is a motivator that doesn't exist against other teams.
It's a shame really. General Manager Jason Botterill insisted here Wednesday that he trusts this group of players. You see his point in games against Tampa Bay -- but not nearly enough on other nights.
Play against the New York Rangers, New Jersey or Florida like they did against the Lightning and the Sabres likely would have piled up points in the last week. That didn't happen and it's why they sit six points out of a playoff spot.
"We played with urgency. We respect their game," said winger Evan Rodrigues. "They're obviously a top team and we play the right way. We defend properly and we have a commitment to it. That's the way you have to play against every team in the league if we want to win some games here."
"It's so much easier to play when the team is digging in and playing strong everywhere around the ice," said rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, whose first-period goal was his seventh of the season. "You get more confidence. It's not fun to lose but this game makes us realize how good we can play."
It was a game that saw the Sabres show plenty of snarl throughout, a far cry from their recent passive efforts that led coach Phil Housley to accurately label them "soft" after last Friday's disaster against the Rangers in KeyBank Center.
Rasmus Ristolainen was a physical monster in this one while playing 26 minutes, 32 seconds, a figure eclipsed only by the 27:23 of Victor Hedman, Tampa's Norris Trophy winner. Ristolainen got into a heavy scrap with Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov in overtime after drilling the Lightning star with a cross-check near the net just after a whistle. Late in regulation, Jeff Skinner and Tampa Bay's Brayden Point were throwing punches in a matchup of 36- and 35-goal scorers.
It was players playing out of character. Put that with 70 combined shots on goal (a 40-30 edge for Tampa Bay) and it made for a fascinating affair that had the crowd of 19,902 roaring throughout.
"It was great to see the way they responded. We were getting under some guy's skins and we competed hard," Housley said. "Every battle was a hard-fought battle. We have to continue to do that. We can't be satisfied."
The Sabres' best player was goalie Carter Hutton, whose 39 saves included a stoning of Hedman on a breakaway in overtime.
"You just try to be patient," said Hutton. "He's a pretty big man and I didn't think he was going to outdeke me by any means, but he can move the puck pretty quick with that long reach. I was just trying to be patient. He waited and I was able to stay with him to keep it going there."
Hutton was bummed about the shootout, which saw Tampa get goals from Steven Stamkos and Kucherov while Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt. Kucherov had scored his team's only goal in the game, becoming the first Tampa Bay player ever to post multiple 100-point seasons.
"Kucherov has a low glove shot he uses a lot and I bit hard there and he kind of undresses me," Hutton said. "There's a reason he's got 100 points. Stamkos puts one under the bar. You obviously want to make a save but those are really good players when you're 1-on-1."
— Buffalo Sabres plays and goals (@SabresPlays) February 22, 2019
Kucherov's second-period goal came on a 2-on-1 as Tyler Johnson slid a pass under Dahlin. The play started when Rodrigues' pass to an open Zach Bogosian in the slot was just off and careened off the Buffalo defenseman's skate, leading to an odd-man rush the other way.
"I put it 6 inches too far in front of him. If that connects, it's a one-timer from the slot," Rodrigues said. "It's a Grade A chance. It takes a bounce off his foot and they go the other way but I make that play every single time. It goes off Bogo's skate, kind of explodes off it. Kind of a tough bounce."
The Sabres are entering a schedule grinder over the next nine days. It includes Saturday's home matinee against Washington, two games in Toronto, another in Philadelphia and a home game against Pittsburgh.
Some lessons from Tampa Bay games better go into those.
"I just liked the desperation, urgency and emotion we brought to the game," said Housley. "Guys were playing for one another. ... We had really good focus and start to the game. We realized we've played well against this team, took the positives out of that and our guys did a really good job. We've got to carry this effort forward."