Sabres' top players shine in come-from-behind win over Lightning


Staff member

Casey Mittelstadt stickhandled in the right circle, buying time to allow his Buffalo Sabres teammates to try to get open against the Tampa Bay Lightning’s three-man penalty kill in overtime Thursday night.

Tage Thompson was covered. Jordan Greenway was screening Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. Rasmus Dahlin sliced through the Lightning defense, bouncing off two penalty-killers to blaze a path to the crease.

As soon as Dahlin reached the far post, Mittelstadt snapped the puck through traffic. Dahlin shoveled the puck past Vasilveskiy with 1:42 in overtime, sending the Sabres to a 3-2 win at Amalie Arena.

“Huge,” Mittelstadt said, describing the importance of the come-from-behind win to cap a two-game trip through Florida.

A comeback was improbable once the third period began. Leading 2-1, the Lightning had lost only three times this season when ahead at the second intermission. The Sabres had only two high-danger scoring chances through 40 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick, and struggled to earn enough space in the offensive zone to beat Vasilevskiy.

While the Lightning’s stars were held in check after the first period, the Sabres’ top players spearheaded the rally.

An aggressive forecheck by Alex Tuch helped the do-it-all winger beat Vasilevskiy with a shot from the slot to draw Buffalo even with Tampa Bay in the first period. On the power play for the first time Thursday night, Tage Thompson snapped the puck over Vasilevskiy’s shoulder to tie it, 2-2, with 8:27 left in regulation. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 21 saves, including a stop on Brandon Hagel in the final minute to ensure Buffalo reached overtime.

Thompson wasn’t done, either. Carrying the puck toward the net in overtime, Thompson quickly deked and lifted a high shot that Vasilevskiy managed to stop. Nikita Kucherov, a Hart Trophy candidate with 104 points in 61 games, hooked Thompson, giving Buffalo a 4-on-3 power play with 3:44 left in overtime.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we got some individual skill and talent in this group,” said Dahlin. “Really nice shot by Thommer. We knew coming into this game that this game was really, really important. I’m just happy we won.”

Sabres coach Don Granato called a timeout and one of his assistants, Matt Ellis, had a play drawn up for the possession. Their players executed it to perfection when Dahlin scored his 15th goal of the season, tying the career-high he set in 2022-23. Buffalo (28-28-4) has won four of its last five games and eight of its last 10 on the road.

The Lightning (32-25-4), meanwhile, received only one assist from its top line and failed to record a shot in overtime after Dylan Cozens forced a turnover on the first shift. Tampa Bay used an aggressive forecheck to take control early and a turnover led to its first power play, which Brayden Point used to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead 8:12 into the game. Mitchell Chaffee tipped a shot to make it 2-1 late in the second period.

A one-goal deficit against a formidable defensive team was the latest obstacle in the Sabres’ quest to score more consistently. They have three or fewer goals in eight straight games and 10 of their last 11. Their struggles offensive stem from an inability, or unwillingness, to get to the net. Too often, they've looked for the perfect pass rather than trust that their shot can lead to a second-chance opportunity for a teammate.

The offensive breakthrough didn't occur Thursday night. Too many of their shots were from the perimeter. But their top players, most notably Thompson and Dahlin, delivered clutch performances against an opponent that desperately needs points to create separation in the playoff race.

“Obviously we’re trying to build and get some momentum here,” said Mittelstadt. “There are going to be games where you’ve got to come from behind and score late in the third and steal that point in overtime. Definitely, definitely a big one for us. Excited and happy to be playing at home.”

Here are other observations from the game:

1. Top guy

Lightning coach Jon Cooper credited Luukkonen for keeping the Sabres in the game. Luukkonen emerged victorious against one of the best goalies in the league, delivering 10-bell saves throughout the night.

Luukkonen used his left leg to stop Point when the Lightning center stickhandled around Dahlin, the the Sabres’ top goalie was quick to get over to block Steven Stamkos’ one-timer early in the second. In 19 appearances since Dec. 30, Luukkonen has a .933 save percentage, 1.85 goals-against average and 12-7 record.

“Obviously, they got some really good looks, but they’re good looks,” said Thompson. “They’re going to get those looks and that’s when you need your goalie to stand up for you, and Upie did a great job. “

2. Line change

Granato didn’t need to see more than a few shifts to decide that his lines needed to be changed. Greenway was moved to the top line, replacing Jeff Skinner, because the Lightning were using their top trio against Thompson and Tuch.

The change paid off immediately. Greenway’s shot was blocked, leaving the puck available for Tuch to beat Vasilevskiy from the slot to tie it 1-1. Skinner played only two even-strength shifts in the third period, but his decision to drive to the net created room for Thompson on the tying goal.

3. Different assignment

The Sabres have 60 percent of the shot attempts, 56 percent of the shot quality share and outshot opponents 37-26 at 5-on-5 while Peyton Krebs centered Zach Benson and JJ Peterka.

Yet Granato moved Krebs back into a fourth-line role between Eric Robinson and Zemgus Girgensons. It didn’t take Krebs long to show that it didn’t impact his creativity and playmaking. He made two outstanding passes in the first period, including a backhand saucer to set up Connor Clifton for a shot from the right circle.

Krebs, like Skinner and Kyle Okposo, was used scarcely in the third period, which, according to Granato, was a move to use the players who were “going,” though the Sabres had 75 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 with Krebs on the ice.

4. Top defenseman

It was clear early in this game that Dahlin wasn’t feeling at his best. He skated 29 or more minutes in seven consecutive games, the first NHL player to do so since Erik Karlsson in 2016. But Dahlin improved throughout the night and managed to have enough energy to drive to the net on the winning goal.

When asked about the workload, Dahlin gave a tongue-in-cheek response, saying, “Today, it was less than usual so I had more energy. No, you kind of get used to it.”

Dahlin scored the game-winner, added an assist on Thompson’s goal and finished with 27:55 of ice time.

“He's an amazing, competitive player and person,” Granato added. “He’s the full, complete package. Willing to play defensive. And I don’t think he gets credit for how good he’s become defensively. I think if you polled the players in the NHL on that he’s one guy that I’m sure they don’t want to play against because he’s physical, he’s strong, he’s determined defensively and then you add the offensive side to it. He’s been dialed in for us.”

5. Next

The Sabres host the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.