BUFFALO, N.Y. — Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was under siege in Thursday's second period.
There were scrambles in front, screens blinding the 6-foot-3 Russian. The Sabres dominated the Lightning, racking up 21 shots, including several dangerous scoring chances.
But Vasilevskiy, 21, poised beyond his years, shrugged it off: "I don't have to come into the locker room … and say, 'Oh my God, 21 shots.' That is my work. Just one more day in the office."
An extremely impressive one at that. Vasilevskiy made 30 saves in helping the Lightning hold on for a 4-1 win at First Niagara Center.
Twenty came in the Sabres' second-period flurry, a big reason the Lightning's three-goal first-period lead held up. Tampa Bay was outshot 31-22.
"You need your goalie to bail you out, but (Vasilevskiy) was the best player on the ice for us," coach Jon Cooper said. "You can't keep depending on goaltending."
Fortunately for the Lightning (7-6-2), it has two great options in Vasilevskiy and starter Ben Bishop. Vasilevskiy, who missed training camp and the season's first month because of a blood clot, has shown no rust in winning his first two starts, including Sunday in Carolina.
Vasilevskiy is earning more starts, which will give Bishop — who started 12 of the first 14 games — a much-needed break. The Lightning has won just two of its past seven games, both started by Vasilevskiy.
"It's definitely refreshing knowing we have that in our back pocket when 'Bish' can't go," captain Steven Stamkos said. " 'Vasy' is the ultimate pro. I know he's young, but his work ethic says a lot about the character he has."
The Lightning gave Vasilevskiy an early three-goal cushion, leading after the first period for the first time this season. Stamkos scored his seventh goal on a beautiful cross-zone feed from new linemate Valtteri Filppula. Tyler Johnson, who had zero goals in the first 12 games, tallied his second in the past three. And Nikita Kucherov, whom Cooper said has elevated his game, put in a rebound.
The Lightning knew the Sabres, 0-3-0 against it this season, would push back in the second. And they did, outshooting Tampa Bay 21-8. "We just completely lost our game," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We stopped skating. Stopped competing. You play a good team, you don't stand a chance playing like that."
Said Cooper: "I think we played like they were going to lay down."
But Vasilevskiy stepped up, stopping all but a highlight-reel goal by Sabres star rookie Jack Eichel. The Lightning clamped down in a boring third period, with both teams combining for just five shots. "That might have been a tough period to watch as a fan," Stamkos said.
Vasilevskiy said it was tough to miss the first part of the season but it helped he was able to work out and skate, only unable to face shots due to the blood thinners he was on. But Vasilevskiy said he's feeling better each day. The more games he plays, he said, he gains confidence and stays fresh. "I like it," he said. "It's good for me."
And the Lightning.
First—1, TB, Stamkos 7 (Filppula, Palat), 5:55. 2, TB, T.Johnson 2 (Killorn, Kucherov), 11:35. 3, TB, Kucherov 5 (Namestnikov, Coburn), 18:20. Penalties—Condra, TB (hook), 7:49.
Second—4, Buf, Eichel 5 (Weber, Ennis), 4:21. Penalties—Girgensons, Buf (high-stick), 5:12; Sustr, TB (interference), 18:21.
Third—5, TB, Hedman 1 (Sustr), 19:30 (en). Penalties—Weber, Buf (boarding), 11:26; Weber, Buf (delay of game), 15:37. SOG—TB 11-8-3—22. Buf 8-21-2—31. PP opportunities—TB 0 of 3; Buf 0 of 2. Goalies—TB, Vasilevskiy 2-0-0 (31 shots-30 saves). Buf, Ullmark 2-2-0 (11-8), C.Johnson (0:00 second, 10-10).