A single loss isn’t about to discourage the Tampa Bay Lightning from riding high into the playoffs.
Tampa Bay, winners of five straight entering Tuesday’s game at HSBC Arena, battled back from a two-goal third-period deficit, but eventually fell 4-2 at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night.
Vincent Lecavalier scored 17 seconds into the third to erase Buffalo’s two-goal lead and to spark the Lightning’s comeback effort late in the game, but Thomas Vanek’s wrist shot into an empty net with 14 seconds remaining clinched the game for the Sabres, who have won six of the past eight games.
With goaltender Dwayne Roloson coming off the bench in favor of an extra attacker, Vanek controlled the puck and sent a shot from the right circle past a diving Roloson as he was skating back towards the goal at 19:46. The goal not only capped the scoring to keep Buffalo’s playoff hopes alive, but also completed a hat trick for Vanek, who had scored twice more earlier in the contest.
Roloson finished the night with 20 saves.
Ryan Malone added a first-period goal for Tampa Bay, three points behind Pittsburgh for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Lightning, who entered Tuesday with 99 points, had a chance to jump Pittsburgh with a win and gain an advantage in the race for home ice in the first round of the postseason, but Tuesday’s defeat coupled with the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils pushed Pittsburgh one back of Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead.
Malone opened the scoring at 13:53 with a deflection out in front. As Martin grebe tried to clear the puck along the boards, Malone kept the play in as he came off the bench and gloved the puck before entering into the zone to make it 1-0.
“Lundin made a good play there on my goal,” Malone said. “I was lucky to get my stick on it.”
The Lightning wing has two goals in three games since returning from injury last Thursday vs. Pittsburgh.
“I think I’ve just been keeping it simple and helping the guys communicate out there,” Malone added. “I’ve felt pretty good.”
Tim Connolly had the other Sabres goal and also added a pair of assists, while leading all skaters on the score sheet with three points. Rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth turned back 23 of 25 shots for the Sabres.
After entering March two points behind Carolina for the eighth and final spot in the East standings, Buffalo is now sixth with 92 points after going 10-4-2 last month.
It tied the game on Vanek’s first of the night, which came on a 5-on-3 power play with under four minutes to go in the first period.
He then gave Buffalo its first lead of the game eight minutes into the second period, and Connolly increased the advantage to 3-1 nearly six minutes later.
“We thought we had some really good chances in that second period, but unfortunately we didn’t capitalize on them,” assistant coach Martin Raymond said. “We just weren’t getting the breaks in our end and I thought we gave up way too many 3-on-2 breaks down in theirs.”
The two-goal deficit going into the final 20 minutes was anything but daunting for the Lightning, who rallied back after creating some prime scoring chances down in Buffalo’s end.
Tampa Bay connected and closed the gap to one after Lecavalier wristed a shot from the slot high over Enroth’s shoulder to make it 3-2 just seventeen seconds into the final frame. Martin St. Louis earned an assist on the goal, giving him points in seven straight games.
The Lightning were fortunate to have their captain return to action Tuesday night after he left the team’s last game early on as a result of taking a high-stick to the face that required three stitches above the eye. The club did, however, lose defenseman Victor Hedman midway through the game Tuesday with a lower body injury.
Lecavalier’s goal would be all the Lightning could muster, however, as Enroth once again rose to the occasion since filling in for starting net minder Ryan Miller, stopping the final seven shots he faced.
Buffalo improved to 3-0-1 amidst Miller’s absence and moved to within one point of clinching a playoff berth.
The defeat marked the Lightning’s first in their last four road games.
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