Mike Smith deflected praise with as much ease as he did pucks Saturday night.
Smith stopped 22 of 23 shots to win for the second straight time and led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres at the St. Pete Times Forum.
He was equally as impressive against Buffalo following a spectacular 27-save effort on Wednesday versus Atlanta in his first start since Dec. 2, but was left with little choice but to direct credit to his teammates after what Head Coach Guy Boucher called “a total team effort.”
“Tonight we hardly gave up a scoring chance,” Smith said. “You know, what can I say? These guys are just battling every night and it was a fantastic win for the team.”
Smith improved to 2-0-0 in his last two starts, while compiling a 0.96 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage. He won for the seventh straight time in his last eight consecutive starts at home.
“He has been unbelievable the last couple of games,” forward Steven Stamkos said. “We are just sticking to our game plan right now and being confident. It’s nice to play that way.”
Tampa Bay has points in six straight at home, marking the longest such streak since Jan. 21 to Feb. 9 of last season. The victory tied the Lightning with Washington, losers of eight straight, for second place in the Southeast Division standings with 40 points. They trail the Atlanta Thrashers by a single point, who took the division lead with a 7-1 win over New Jersey Saturday.
Stamkos scored for the fourth time in as many games, and Simon Gagne also had a goal for Tampa Bay, 18-10-4 and out to the best start in franchise history through 32 games. Martin St. Louis added an empty-netter at 19:58 in regulation.
Jason Pominville scored the lone goal for the Sabres, who wrapped up a two-game road trip with zero points after falling to Florida on Friday night.
“It’s disappointing,” Buffalo forward Mike Grier said. “We were playing fairly well coming in, but we dug ourselves into a hole. Hopefully we’ll find a way to regroup and score some more goals.”
The Sabres have not won or lost more than two straight games since Nov. 6, but have dropped two straight to Tampa Bay this season.
They were held scoreless on the power play, going 0-for-5 against the Lightning.
“Our power play didn’t generate that much, and nearly not as much as it should have,” Pominville said. “I think we had two or three in a row where we couldn’t get much going on, and that really could have made a difference.”
Gagne opened scoring with the man advantage after elevating a nifty backhand from the top of the crease. After hesitating to receive a bouncing puck from Vincent Lecavalier, he roofed a shot over Ryan Miller and beneath the crossbar to make it 1-0.
Lecavalier had a chance to extend the lead, but was stopped by Miller on a penalty shot in the third period.
Miller finished the night with 34 saves after being pulled the previous night in favor of Patrick Lalime for allowing four goals on 10 shots.
Stamkos doubled the lead at 18:10 of the second period, finishing off a 3-on-1 with St. Louis and Ryan Malone. St. Louis took a pass from Malone before pulling back alongside the net and feeding Stamkos, who banged it home for his 25th of the season.
Malone has 11 points in his last nine games, including seven assists.
Pominville cut the deficit to one just a minute later, sliding a shot past Smith at 19:12 for Buffalo’s only goal. St. Louis then capped the scoring with two seconds remaining in the game.
“I thought tonight we played solid,” Boucher said. “Our penalty kill was great, our power play scored, our goaltender played great. I’d love to be mad at something because I want the players to want more and make sure we don’t sit on what we do, but the reality is this was solid.”
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