BUFFALO, N.Y. — There’s been one constant from the Lightning through their season-long five-game winning streak:
They’ve done a better job of keeping the puck out of their own net.
With the Lightning’s 3-1 matinee win over the Sabres on Saturday afternoon — the beginning of their three-game, four-day road trip — they continued to munch points and jumped to the front of a cluttered group of seven Eastern Conference teams all within four points of each other entering the day.
Going into the night games, the Lightning (24-17-5, 53 points) moved into the third-place playoff position in the Atlantic Division. They will have the opportunity to continue their climb Sunday night in Detroit against a Red Wings team that’s two points behind them.
“Every game we go into now, the main goal is trying to get the two points,” said center Anthony Cirelli, who set up the Lightning’s opening goal by forcing a turnover in the offensive zone. “We did our job at home and now we have to come on the road here and win games. So it’s a great start for us.”
Over the course of their win streak, the Lightning have allowed an average of just two goals a game.
“I thought we defended great today,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We didn’t give them much in the first two periods. In the third period, they had the puck more than we did, but I never completely felt in duress.”
The Lightning scored on their first two shots of the day, both created by Buffalo turnovers, including Tyler Motte’s short-handed goal that gave them a 2-0 cushion 7:06 into the game.
Just 17 seconds after Nick Paul goal put the Lightning up 1-0, a cross-checking call on Darren Raddysh (a hit that was retaliation for Alex Tuch hitting Brayden Point into the boards) put the Lightning on the penalty kill.
It was a huge opportunity for the Sabres, and 30 seconds into their power play, Motte pressured Tuch at the blue line, forcing a turnover and creating a breakaway. Motte withstood Rasmus Dahlin’s lunging backcheck and beat Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen short side.
“I guess it’s not even a move,” Motte said of the goal that gave Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead. “Just a quick shot that I’ve tried to get off in the past and I felt like it had a chance there and luckily it went in.
After going their first 42 games without a short-handed goal, the Lightning now have two in the past four games. Luke Glendening, Motte’s forward-pair partner on the PK, scored Tampa Bay’s first shorty in the Jan. 11 win over the Devils.
Johansson comes up huge
Lightning backup goaltender Jonas Johansson went from playing almost every game to open the season when Andrei Vasilevskiy was out to playing sporadically once Vasilevskiy returned. It’s not an easy transition, and Saturday’s game was Johansson’s first in nearly three weeks. It might be his only start of January.
But for your backup goaltender to get the win on the front end of a back-to-back is huge, especially given the Lightning’s need to pile up points.
Johansson caught a break early, when Buffalo forward J.J. Peterka’s shot attempt beat him far side but clanked harmlessly off the post. After that, Johansson was sharp. He fought off a third-period surge by the Sabres, making 10 of his 26 saves in the final minutes, but none was bigger than the left pad stop he made on Tuch on a breakaway in the opening minute of the third.
“That’s a game changer and that’s when you need your goalie,” Cooper said. “You don’t know when that save is coming, but it’s coming ... It was the difference in the game.”
Puck possession wins the day
The Lightning had just 16 shots on goal. The big three of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos had just three shots between them (Kucherov, who entered the day as the league’s leading scorer had none). The Lightning power play was 0-for-3 and recorded just three shots on goal.
But the way the Lightning possessed the puck, especially throughout the first two periods, and didn’t make mistakes, dictated the afternoon. They certainly allowed their share of scoring chances — the Sabres had 21, including 12 in the second period — but the Lightning forced most of Buffalo’s looks to the outside. And they continued to limit their turnovers.
“We were on guys, on pucks, hounding them, in our structure, covering our lanes,” Cirelli said. “So I think that good things always happen as long as we stay disciplined with the puck and manage our game. The main thing is keeping our feet moving.”
Added Motte: “When we’re consistent in our game, we obviously have a lot of trust and belief in ourselves, but when we consistently do it for as close to 60 minutes as we can, I feel like we like our chances most nights. I think throughout maybe the first half of the year, we weren’t ask consistent as we’d like to be ... so I think that’s a good focus of ours.”
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