TAMPA — Guy Boucher wanted to be mad at something, anything, in the Lightning's 3-1 victory over the Sabres on Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.
But the coach, usually so hard to please, was stumped.
"I was real proud of them," he said. "Those are the type of games we want. The blowouts, you don't really learn much from that. If you want to win a championship, those are the games you have to go get and know how to do it."
It was the third straight win for Tampa Bay, which at 18-10-4 and with 40 points has the best record in franchise history after 32 games and is one point behind the first-place Thrashers in the Southeast Division.
Marty St. Louis had an empty-net goal and two assists. Simon Gagne and Steven Stamkos scored in a second period in which the Lightning had an 18-5 shot advantage, and goaltender Mike Smith, with 22 saves, won a second straight solid start.
Still, the game, more a grind than a show, more a physical test of wills than a free-wheeling skate, was won with what center Nate Thompson called "the little things."
The penalty kill was 5-for-5. Rebounds were cleared; 17 shots were blocked, with defenseman Randy Jones getting seven. And in the final 10 minutes, Buffalo, outshot 37-23 in the game, had just six shots.
Credit the defense and third- and fourth-line grinders such as Thompson and wings Dana Tyrell, who had two shorthanded breakaways, and Adam Hall for leading that charge.
"The little things are huge for us," Thompson said. "We're chipping pucks in, we're chipping pucks out, making smart plays."
Then, laughing, he added, "When we're doing that, hopefully we lead by example. Hopefully, those first- and second-line guys do the same things and make plays."
"They set the tone," Stamkos said. "You feed off that. You see guys like Dana out there taking hits, going wide, it gets the whole bench going. Those guys definitely bring energy and atmosphere to our game."
The top guys did the rest.
Gagne scored with 7:44 left in the second period on the power play after Vinny Lecavalier took the puck away from Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold.
Six minutes later Stamkos scored his 25th at the end of a sequence that began with Ryan Malone besting Andrej Sekera for the puck.
And St. Louis flat out beat Leopold in a race to the net to close out the scoring.
It all just ruined Boucher's night.
"I'd love to be mad at something because I want the players to want more," he said. "But the reality is this was solid."
First Period—None. Penalties—Weber, Buf (cross-checking), 3:05; Moore, TB (holding), 19:06.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Gagne 3 (Lecavalier, St. Louis), 12:16 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 25 (St. Louis, Malone), 18:10. 3, Buffalo, Pominville 5 (Hecht, Sekera), 19:12. Penalties—Malone, TB (interference), 2:47; Kubina, TB (slashing), 5:31; Weber, Buf (tripping), 10:25; D.Roy, Buf (hooking), 12:34.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, St. Louis 12 (Stamkos, Ohlund), 19:58 (en). Penalties—Bergenheim, TB (high-sticking), 3:47; Lundin, TB (hooking), 10:55; Myers, Buf (tripping), 12:38. Missed Penalty Shot—Lecavalier, TB, 14:15 third. Shots on Goal—Buffalo 7-5-11—23. Tampa Bay 10-18-9—37. Power-play opportunities—Buffalo 0 of 5; Tampa Bay 1 of 4. Goalies—Buffalo, Miller 11-10-3 (36 shots-34 saves). Tampa Bay, Smith 10-5-0 (23-22). A—17,141 (19,758). T—2:26. Referees—Paul Devorski, Frederick L'Ecuyer. Linesmen—Shane Heyer, Steve Miller.