A group of Tampa Bay Lightning surrounded Rasmus Dahlin as the Buffalo Sabers defenseman lay on the ice after attempting a hip check on Anthony Cirelli that led to a penalty and heightened tensions.
Jeff Skinner wrapped his arms around Cirelli to pull the Lightning center away from one of the Sabres’ top players in the second period. A few minutes later, Riley Stillman, a defenseman acquired by the Sabers before the trade deadline, dropped the gloves to battle Tanner Jeannot.
“We’ve got a great group of guys,” Dahlin said, surveying the team’s locker room after explaining he didn’t mean to try a low hit on Cirelli. “We protect each other.”
This was the kind of play Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams had in mind when he completed trades this week that brought Stillman and 6-foot-6 wing Jordan Greenway to Buffalo. Adams explained to reporters that he was tired of seeing teams try to “bully” his top players.
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A travel issue prevented Greenway from making it in time for the game, but the Sabers didn’t lose their composure as the playoff-hardened Lightning tried to claw their way back into the game through intimidation and physicality.
Tyson Jost and Jack Quinn scored late in the second period to give Buffalo a three-goal lead, then held on for a 5-3 victory Saturday afternoon at KeyBank Center.
“We needed that focus,” Sabers coach Don Granato said. “We needed to be dialed in and really be consistent. I thought maybe in the last five minutes we got a little bit careless, but there was a lot to fight through to make sure we were steady. We wanted to play with pace and pressure. A lot of things that could have caused ups and downs and distractions.
“I credit our guys for staying really dialed in because we needed that win and I think our room knew we needed that win.”
The Sabers (32-25-4) snapped a two-game sweep and won a second straight over the Lightning (37-20-5), who reached a third straight Stanley Cup Final last spring after winning back-to-back championships.
Tage Thompson, Vinnie Hinostroza and Skinner also scored for Buffalo, and goaltender Eric Comrie made 33 saves to earn his fourth win in five starts since returning to the team from a training assignment in Rochester. The Sabers used their 34 shots on goal, three of which were on goal in the second period, to match their win total from last season with 21 games remaining.
This is the answer Granato wanted after watching his players lose to Columbus and Boston earlier this week. Still without injured top line winger Alex Tuch, Buffalo did not force passes into the Lightning’s disciplined defensive zone structure.
The Sabers looked like the faster team, executing tape-to-tape breakout passes to create rush chances against Lightning backup goalie Brian Elliott. The two teams played an even first period with Thompson tying the score at 1-1 with a wrist shot from the left circle on the power play 16:15 into the game. The goal was Thompson’s 42nd of the season, and it was set up by Dahlin, who returned to the lineup after a three-game injury absence.
“I think we just played with tempo,” Quinn said. “Our game revolves around that. We can use our speed and try to wear a team down, get on top of them.”
The Lightning’s turnovers continued to feed the Sabres’ transition offense, leading to an early second-period odd-man rush that Victor Olofsson nearly turned into a goal. Hinostroza made it 2-1 by scoring on a one-timer after Casey Mittelstadt won a puck battle behind Tampa Bay’s net.
Comrie helped the Sabers kill a penalty, then added another stop on Jeannot before Dahlin’s failed hip check led to the scrum and tempers flared. Jost extended Buffalo’s lead to 3-1 on the penalty kick when the talented waiver wire collected the puck in the slot and beat Elliott with a backhand shot.
When the Lightning failed to score on the power play, Jeannot took to the ice and used several uppercuts to knock Stillman out of the game. However, the Sabers did not give up.
Tampa Bay’s frustration was evident with every shift, as the Lightning chased hits instead of making smart plays to stop the Sabres.
“I think everybody on the bench just said let them come at you, take them at you and just pass it right past them and we’ll be fine with them,” said Sabers defenseman Mattias Samuelsson, who made his 100th career appearance. game. “They can’t keep up with our speed, especially their (defense).”
Quinn’s 12th goal of the season, and fourth in seven games, was a shot from the right circle with 14 seconds left in the second period to give the Sabers a 4-1 advantage going into the second intermission.
The Lightning’s carelessness prevented a comeback. Skinner scored his 26th goal of the season just 26 seconds after Michael Eyssimont was called for holding during the first minute of the third period. The Lightning answered with back-to-back goals by Killorn, the second of which was shorthanded to make it 5-3 with 6:42 left in regulation, but they couldn’t get into a rhythm and took three penalties in the third.
The Lightning benched star players Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos for the entire third period. The Sabres, meanwhile, added two much-needed points and, with their backs against the wall in the middle of a playoff chase, pushed back against a top team.
“It’s huge,” Dahlin said. “We knew it was going to be a game. We had to bring the level of competition so it was a grind for 60 minutes. The guys did an unreal job.”
Here are other observations from the game:
Initial reports on Stillman’s status encouraged Granato, but the team will have to monitor the defenseman’s recovery given the nature of the injury.
It was a solid second game for Stillman, who made his debut Thursday in Boston. He didn’t defend himself properly during the game and left with blood dripping from his face, but his teammates talked afterwards about how important that moment was in the game.
Stillman dropped Ian Cole with a clean check in the neutral zone in the second period and defended well next to Ilya Lyubushkin. The Sabers held a significant advantage in 5-on-5 shot attempts (15-3) when Stillman was on the ice.
“He just wanted to go,” Granato said of the game. “He was excited about it and the adrenaline got the best of him. The purpose and intent was unique to him. Again, remember how the team went. They didn’t like the argument after Dahl’s hit, and it was quiet. after that. He knew and felt he wanted to do something for the new group here and the team.”
The contenders’ decision not to acquire Hinostroza before the deadline is the Sabres’ gain. It’s likely that Hinostroza could be forced out of the lineup with the Greenway trade, but Hinostroza, a 28-year-old outfielder, is going to be an important depth piece in the final weeks of the season.
Hinostroza’s pounce on Mittelstadt’s pass showcased the aggressive approach Granato wants from his forwards. It was Hinostroza’s second goal in four games.
Comrie was good when he needed to be. He has won four consecutive decisions and made 13 saves in the third period when the Lightning pressed.
“I feel like where I was at the start of the year when we were all healthy and then we got a whole bunch of D injuries and things kind of derailed,” Comrie said. “But I mean, I felt where I was at the start of the year again. It took me a while to get back to that point after the injury, but I feel really good right now.”
The Sabers host the Edmonton Oilers on Monday, then travel to Long Island to play the New York Islanders on Tuesday. Both games start at 19:30