On The Road With Dave Mishkin
Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Buffalo Sabers
Greetings from Buffalo, site of tonight’s game between the Lightning and Sabres. It’s the final contest in the season series – the Sabres have won the first three, including two in overtime.
The Lightning come in having won their last three games. Last week featured victories over the Islanders, Bruins and Rangers. What’s been apparent during the winning streak is how well the players are performing as a team. During Saturday’s post-game radio call-in show on flagship station 620 WDAE, Lightning captain Tim Taylor commented that the guys look like they are playing to win, not playing for individual stats or simply playing out the string. That’s an important and accurate observation. Teams that are going to miss the playoffs sometimes unravel down the stretch. That certainly hasn’t happened to the Bolts, who were very competitive in the games even before the current winning streak.
For teams (unlike the Lightning) that aren’t committed to winning, team defense can be a problem. Playing good team defense requires hard work, discipline and sacrifice. These components have been a staple of the Lightning’s game. On Saturday, for example, the Lightning held the Rangers to only 20 shots. They were committed to blocking shots and taking away time and space from New York’s skilled players. When a mistake occurred, one teammate bailed out another – there was no greater example of that than Alex Picard’s diving save/block on Jaromir Jagr’s open net chance. Another factor has been the Lightning’s forecheck. They are bottling up the opposition before the puck even reaches the defensive zone and, as a result, are possessing the puck in the offensive end. This excellent forecheck/team defense brand of hockey propelled Tampa Bay to victories against three teams that are scrambling for playoff qualification and/or positioning.
The Lightning will see another team in that category tonight. The Sabres, coming off back-to-back wins last weekend, are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They enter tonight’s game in 10th place, but are just three points behind Philadelphia for the eighth and final playoff spot. Plus, they have a game in hand on both the Flyers and the ninth-seeded Capitals, who leapfrogged them last night with a win at Nashville.
The Sabres have had the Lightning’s number since the lockout ended – the Bolts have only one win in their past 11 games against Buffalo. The Sabres are hurting on defense right now; Jaroslav Spacek, Dmitri Kalinen and Nathan Paetsch have all been out with injuries. Plus, they traded all-star Brian Campbell at the deadline. But defense hasn’t been an issue for Buffalo during its two-game winning streak. Last weekend, the Sabres posted convincing 7-1 and 6-2 victories against Carolina and Toronto, respectively. Still, the Sabres’ blueline, without a portion of its regulars, will be an area that the Lightning will try to exploit tonight.
As evidenced by the scores in their past two games, the Sabres are capable of putting up big offensive numbers. As they have done during the past couple of years, the Sabres boast a balanced attack (although Tim Connolly, arguably their best play-making forward, will miss tonight’s game due to a hip injury). Their 225 goals scored are fourth-most in the NHL, but leading scorer Jason Pominville’s 70 points rank only tied for 20th in the league. Those last two Buffalo games illustrate the Sabres’ scoring depth – 10 different players accounted for those 13 goals. This means that for tonight’s game, the Lightning must again forecheck well and play a solid defensive game against an opponent that gets its offense from a multitude of sources. Naturally, another factor in slowing the Buffalo’s attack will be the play of goaltender Karri Ramo, who makes his first career start against the Sabres.