Had you been at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida last night without any indication the time of year it was, the atmosphere and the game played between the Lightning and the Buffalo Sabres might have told you it was April or May and that the two teams on the ice were battling in the playoffs. The streaking Sabres began a three-game Southern road-trip sitting atop the entire NHL with a 10-game winning streak in tow and the opportunity to set the franchise mark with a win in Tampa. The Lightning, who've been one of the best teams the Eastern conference for three of the last four seasons, had turf to defend against the upstart Sabres and were looking to reclaim their spot at the top.
What ensued was a battle in a playoff-like atmosphere between two teams vying for supremacy not only in the conference, but in the entire league.
The Sabres came into the game as the top team in the NHL and the first team ever to have finished in last place the prior season and be atop of the league after 25 games. The 10-game win streak they were on served notice that they were saying goodbye to doormat-status and they were out to prove further that they belonged in the same class as the heavyweights of the league. Algthough Buffalo was outclasssed in many facets, they still went toe-to-toe with Tampa but ultimatley came out on the losing end of a 5-4 score, which dropped to third in the Atlantic division, one point behind the Lightning.
There's a reason Tampa has made it to the Eastern conference finals in three of the last four seasons including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015. This team can score. Dating back to the 2014-15 season, no team has averaged more goals per game (3.11) over that span than Tampa with winger Nikita Kucherov (148 goals) and captain Steven Stamkos (123) leading the way. And, to almost no one's surprise, both of those players scored last night. Kucherov scored in the first period of a see-saw game to make it 3-2 Tampa while Stamkos scored the game-tying goal while on the powerplay in the third period to make it 4-4.
One of the hallmarks of the Lightning is depth and clutch scoring and Tampa got that when fourth-liner Cedric Paquette scored the game-winner with just over five minutes to play in the third period.
The Sabres want to be that team, and by the looks of it they're well on their way. They have parallel players to Kucherov and Stamkos in Jeff Skinner (right now, as he's a pending UFA) and captain Jack Eichel. Tampa has a superstar on the back-end in defenseman Victor Hedman, the reigning Norris Trophy winner while the Sabres have up-and-coming 18 yr. old phenom Rasmus Dahlin on defense. Like the Lightning, Buffalo is a pretty fast team as well that can keep up with nearly every team in the league and about the only thing they lacked last night was a little more firepower and a better feel for the big game like they have in Tampa.
Veteran Sabres winger Kyle Okposo is in his 12th NHL season and had gone to the playoffs three times with the NY Islanders. He was asked post-game about Buffalo's resiliency during a streak that had just ended and he told the gathered media, "You could say a lot about our group and how we've grown and I think tonight was no different."
"I've said it before," he continued, "There have been some guys that haven't played in games like that and that was as close to a playoff game as you're going to get."
That "playoff-like atmosphere" was echoed throughout the post-game interviews including Lightning head coach Jon Cooper who told the local media, "I'm pretty sure if you were a fan of hockey and your were in the building, you would have enjoyed this one."
Buffalo usually has a strong contingent of displaced Sabres fans, particularly in Florida, and last night was no different. You could hear the chants of "Let's Go Buffalo" start up only to be drowned out by a counter of "Let's Go Bolts" and the roar of the crowd both ways when their team scored. It was a product of the intensity on the ice and the back-and-forth nature of a nine-goal game that saw five lead changes.
There were 51 hits dished out in this game and although that stat can be very subjective and even misleading at times, that figure seemed right on as these two teams tried to set a tone. There was a body check that caught Lightning d-man Dan Girardi awkwardly on the knee that sent him to the locker room, a scrum after Eichel was called for a boarding penalty and Sabres d-man Nathan Beaulieu a little crazed while throwing punches during and end-of-period skirmish looking like he was ready to take on everyone inside Amalie Arena. And that was just in the first period. Throughout the game there were little whacks each team laid on each other, plenty of after-whistle face-washes and a conviction behind every hit that said that said "it's on."
Tampa is the defending Atlantic Division champion but the upstart Sabres had moved ahead of them in the standings, which is something they didn't take kindly to. The Lightning had lost the previous game and were ready to get back in the win column. Tampa was 6-1 after a loss this season with their only loss, ironically, coming at the hands of Buffalo on November 13 and they were ready for the Sabres. "We have to expect every team to give us their best game," said Sabres head coach Phil Housley to the media. "This is a very, very good team and they were ready."
Such are the expectations for a Buffalo team that has gone from rags to riches in a short period of time and were the shortcomings of a team in an unusual spot playing against a conference heavyweight.
Although overwhelmed at times, the Sabres skated with the Lightning the entire game and were able to hang with them in a back-and-forth battle that unfortunately didn't end the way they wanted it to. A veteran team like Tampa has a lot of skill, depth and experience to create opportunities and they made the best of their chances while Buffalo fell a little short. "I don't think we created enough to win the game tonight," said Buffalo forward Sam Reinhart who had two goals in the game. "I think they created a lot more chances. I would have liked us to not give them as much and create more ourselves."
There was no head-hanging in the Sabres locker room after the game and there really shouldn't be either. They endured an onslaught in the first period, counter-punched when they could and came back later to take a lead into the third period but ultimately couldn't hold on. You can point to a talent discrepancy that leans in Tampa's favor and the tight-knit nature of a Lightning core that's been together for years under the guidance of Cooper.
For a team like Buffalo to be able to push Tampa to the limits in a playoff-like game is pretty impressive. "It's just your run-of-the-mill Tampa/Buffalo game," said Cooper with a wry smile on his face. We're not sure about that when you consider the two teams recent history as Tampa has been the well-to-do brother ultimately getting the best of their struggling sibling on most occasions. But perhaps Cooper's subconscious was projecting a little bit into the future. If last night's game was any indication of things to come, the Sabres may have lost out on their chance at franchise history with the loss, but they may also have gained a fierce rival in the process.