TAMPA — Steven Stamkos skated onto the Tampa Bay Times Forum ice Thursday night to an ovation from the sellout crowd of 19,204.
Back in the lineup after missing 45 games because of a broken shinbone in his right leg, the Lightning's star center was introduced last with the announcement he is the franchise's 10th captain.
"A no-brainer," coach Jon Cooper said.
"An honor," Stamkos said. "It's just unfortunate we didn't get the win."
The 3-1 loss to the Sabres, statistically the league's worst team, was Tampa Bay's eighth loss in 11 games, and dampened Stamkos' return and the debut of Ryan Callahan, acquired Wednesday from the Rangers in the Marty St. Louis trade.
The thing is, the Lightning (34-24-5) played pretty well, with a 44-21 shot advantage and a significant territorial edge.
But Buffalo goaltender Jonas Enroth was outstanding with a season-best 43 saves. Tyler Johnson's 19th goal, shorthanded, with 2:29 left in the third period was his only blip.
Callahan, on a line with center Valtteri Filppula and Nikita Kucherov, played 16:33 with four shots and four hits, and was a constant in front of the Buffalo net.
Stamkos, playing between Alex Killorn and Teddy Purcell, was the workhorse with five shots on goal in 21:03 of ice time. He even scrummed it up with Buffalo's Mike Weber.
He made a couple of passes that were picked off and missed the net with 21 seconds left in the second period with Enroth at his mercy. But he also won 17 of 24 faceoffs.
"He was outstanding," Cooper said. "If that's the worst game he plays for us, things are going to look pretty good. He was the most dangerous player on the ice."
"Thank God," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said, "he was a little bit rusty."
Buffalo's Tyler Myers scored in the first period with a high wrist shot past goalie Anders Lindback after a turnover by Mark Barberio. Marcus Foligno scored in the second after Myers bested Victor Hedman with a forecheck.
Even so, the Lightning played its best game in a while, though more traffic in front of Enroth would have helped.
"This is the biggest rut we've been in," Cooper said. "Sometimes you play pretty well and maybe you deserve a different fate, but if you continue to play well you'll come out of the rut."
With 19 games left and only four points from being out of the playoffs there is no time to waste.
Said Stamkos: "We can't afford to let teams come in here and beat us down the stretch."
First Period—1, Buffalo, Myers 9, 15:56. Penalties—Kucherov, TB (high-sticking), :51; Stewart, Buf, served by Leino, double minor (roughing), 8:48; Salo, TB (roughing), 8:48.
Second Period—2, Buffalo, Foligno 7 (Hodgson, Myers), 9:25. Penalties—Flynn, Buf (delay of game), 10:16.
Third Period—3, Buffalo, Hodgson 16 (Foligno), 13:44. 4, Tampa Bay, Johnson 19 (Hedman), 17:31 (sh). Penalties—Killorn, TB (interference), 16:21; Mitchell, Buf (holding), 18:20. Shots on Goal—Buffalo 10-6-5—21. Tampa Bay 15-16-13—44. Power-play opportunities—Buffalo 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 0 of 3. Goalies—Buffalo, Enroth 4-13-5 (44 shots-43 saves). Tampa Bay, Lindback 5-12-1 (21-18). A—19,204 (19,204). T—2:28.