The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Buffalo Sabres treated the fans in the St. Pete Times Forum to plenty of second period scoring and a back and forth battle before the Lightning prevailed, 5-3.
The Sabres had two great scoring chances within moments of the start of the contest, both by centerman Tim Connolly, but Mike Smith was the equal to both of them – the first an acrobatic toe save on a shot from the right of the net and the second on a shorthanded 2 on 1 that morphed into a breakaway which Smith stayed with and stopped.
And while that seemed to be a fortuitous beginning for Buffalo, it was the Lightning that got on the scoreboard first – twice, actually - within 34 seconds.
With Sabre forward Daniel Paille in the penalty box for hooking, Tampa Bay recovered from the shorthanded attempt by Connolly and got their power play in gear as defenseman Steve Eminger’s shot from the blue line weaved through heavy traffic in front of the net and past Sabre netminder Ryan Miller. The goal, at 4:45, was Eminger’s fourth of the season and was assisted by Jeff Halpern.
The second score came moments later when Cory Murphy ripped a slap shot from the high slot that Steve Downie redirected over Miller’s glove. The goal was Downie’s second of the season. For Tampa Bay, that was two goals on two shots, and that was enough to send them off the ice after the first period; outshooting, outhitting and outskating the Sabres.
Buffalo climbed back into the game just 19 seconds into the second period as Derek Roy tapped a rebound past Smith to cut the Lightning lead to one goal.
Sixty four seconds later the Bolts re-gained a two-goal lead when Lukas Krajicek’s shot from the left of the Sabre net hit a goal post, bounced off Sabre forward Tomas Vanek and into the Buffalo net. The goal was Krajicek’s first of the season and was assisted by Andrej Meszaros and Vaclav Prospal.
The goals continued to come in bunches as the Sabres came right back with a power play goal by Ales Kotalik less than three minutes later. The Sabre’s forward blasted a shot from the right point that eluded Smith while Jeff Halpern was in the penalty box for high sticking.
The goal fest continued at 13:52 when Jeff Halpern collected his third goal of the season as he broke into the Sabre zone with Ryan Malone on a 2-on-1. Halpern feigned a cross-ice pass and unloaded a slap shot that Miller couldn’t handle. Mark Recchi and Ty Wishart assisted on the score. For Recchi, it was his 879th career assist; for Wishart, the point was the first of his NHL career.
Buffalo came back yet again as goal number five of the second period went up on the scoreboard at 16:55. With David Koci whistled for interference, his third consecutive penalty in the period, Derek Roy picked up his second goal of the game for the Sabres when he put a rebound past Smith. The score was the second power play goal by the Sabres on the night.
As the period wound down, The Lightning found themselves skating 5-on-3 when Sabre forward Chris Butler and defenseman Henrik Tallinder were each sent off for tripping. With five seconds remaining in the second stanza Tampa Bay brought the goal-scoring bonanza to a close with their second power play of the game, a blast from the blueline by newly-acquired defenseman Cory Murphy, his first goal of the season. Mark Recchi earned his second assist of the game on the score, which re-established the Lightning’s two-goal lead with twenty minutes remaining to be played. With the score, the resurgent Lightning power play has converted five of the last 13 extra-man opportunities.
After the two teams split three goals apiece in the second, the third period was relatively tame, although Smith was called upon to make several sterling saves to preserve the lead. The Lightning played a cautious, conservative style for much of the period, broken only by Vincent Lecavalier’s breakaway attempt that Miller stopped with his left pad with just over four minutes remaining to play.
The Lightning defensemen, producers of only eight goals on the season prior to tonight’s game, accounted for three of the five Tampa Bay goals, including one by newcomer Cory Murphy who played over 14 minutes in the contest and quarterbacked the power play.
“Goals from the defense – that’s huge,” interim Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. “If you can get goals from the blue line, it makes all the difference.”
Tocchet also had praise for Steve Downie’s tip-in goal in the first period.
“As a coach, I love those kind of goals,” Tocchet said. “The tip-in from in front –that’s the kind of goals that win playoff games.”
And while playoff talk is still a bit preliminary, Tampa Bay has now won six of their last nine and three of four on the current homestand.
“We all play for the playoffs,” Tocchet said. “Who wants to play just a regular season? We’ve dug ourselves a hole and we’re trying to dig out of it.”
But first things first, and after four days off for the All-Star break, Tampa Bay will look to continue to dig out as the regular season resumes on Tuesday when the Montreal Canadiens come to town.
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