On the day the Tampa Bay Lightning introduced head coach Jon Cooper, the team delivered arguably its strongest all-around performance of the season.
The Lightning limited the Buffalo Sabres to just 14 shots, won twice as many faceoffs (34-17) and stopped all four Buffalo power plays in a 2-1 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak. Steven Stamkos also added to his National Hockey League goal lead with his 23rd of the season.
But the most important thing about the Bolts’ victory on Tuesday night was the overall effectiveness of the entire team. Unlike so many times this season, there didn’t seem to be a glaring weakness on the ice putting the team in a hole.
The defense was strong, backchecking well and winning battles on the boards. The offense was effective, putting pressure on goalie Ryan Miller and the Sabres defense throughout the game. And Mathieu Garon was good enough, making 13 of 14 saves in goal.
In short, the team that took the ice against Buffalo looked little like the inconsistent squad that cost Guy Boucher his job.
Sure, it may have been one game against a poor Buffalo team. Tampa Bay may have had the “new coach” bump, although he won’t be behind the bench until Friday against the New Jersey Devils. It may have been a fluke; it’s too soon to tell.
However, Tuesday night’s game showed what could have been for this Lightning team. When the season began, these were the types of performances management and the coaching staff had in mind. Tampa Bay outworked the Sabres, outhustled the Sabres and looked like a much better team.
Sure, it was one game, but the Bolts teased fans with the talent that they have. Perhaps Cooper will bring this version of the team to the ice more than often the rest of this year and, more importantly, next year.
The win could also be contributed to defenseman Brian Lee being demoted to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League earlier in the day. He was arguably the Bolts’ worst defender, and they won as soon as he left.
Nonetheless, it was the key players who came through for the Lightning against Buffalo, with Stamkos’ goal coming at 16:01 in the first and Martin St. Louis (8) scoring on a 5-on-3 power play at 8:15 in the second.
Jordan Leopold (2) cut the lead to one with a little more than three minutes left in the third, firing a slap shot past Garon.
Despite Miller making 23 saves for Buffalo, they couldn’t overcome the early deficit in the end. The Sabres will stay in-state for their next game, taking on the Florida Panthers on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Tampa Bay’s next game will take place with Cooper behind the bench in the aforementioned match-up with the New Jersey Devils. The puck drops at the Tampa Bay Times Forum at 7:30 p.m. ET.