TAMPA — Lightning coach Rick Tocchet believed his struggling team would come out confidently Thursday against the Sabres and jump-start a run at a playoff spot.
Boy, was he ever off the mark.
"We just looked very nervous, and it's on me," he said.
The Sabres dominated the opening period, taking a 3-0 lead en route to an embarrassingly easy 6-2 win before an announced crowd of 16,868 at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning (28-30-12), which has lost three straight, all at home, failed to pick up ground on Boston, which lost to Pittsburgh, and remains six points behind the Bruins for the eighth and final East playoff spot. The Lightning, in 11th place, finished the night three points behind the teams in ninth and 10th, the Thrashers (who won) and Rangers (who lost).
"We're not helping ourselves, obviously," right wing Marty St. Louis said. "The teams around us that we're chasing are losing, and we can't seem to win a game. It's hard, but there's still 12 games and 24 points to be grabbed. … I don't think anybody's giving up."
But he and his teammates sure looked tentative. And the Northeast Division-leading Sabres punished them as a result.
Right wing Jason Pominville scored the first of his three goals on a power play at 5:19 of the first to put the Lightning on its heels. Defenseman Tyler Myers made it 2-0, and Pominville closed the period by following up his blast off a breakaway that caromed off goalie Antero Niittymaki's pad. That prompted the large contingent of Sabres fans to begin chanting, "Let's go Buff-a-lo."
"We had a good practice (Wednesday), and you think you're ready to play," Tocchet said. "Good teams, even if they get a goal (down) or two goals, don't start getting out of coverages and start blowing coverages because you get nervous and get rattled. That's the one thing that disheartens me as a coach. We seem like a team that gets rattled."
The Sabres, who snapped a three-game skid, also got another stellar performance by goalie Ryan Miller, the hero of the silver-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. In the second, he stopped center Vinny Lecavalier and right wing Mark Parrish on breakaway opportunities. Between those chances, Buffalo added a short-handed goal by center Derek Roy.
Lightning right wing Steve Downie and Lecavalier scored in the third, but Buffalo left wing Thomas Vanek scored an empty-netter, and Pominville capped his hat trick in the waning seconds. "We definitely need more poise," Lecavalier said. "You have to find something. You have to. It's time now. We're chasing three teams for the eighth spot. It's still there, but you have to start now."
First Period—1, Buffalo, Pominville 19 (Roy, Lydman), 5:19 (pp). 2, Buffalo, Myers 10 (Hecht), 13:56. 3, Buffalo, Pominville 20 (Tallinder), 16:23. Penalties—Rivet, Buf, minor-major-misconduct (instigator, fighting), 2:07; Fedoruk, TB, major (fighting), 2:07; Walker, TB (interference), 4:48; Kaleta, Buf (roughing), 9:22; Fedoruk, TB (interference), 11:48; Pominville, Buf (slashing), 12:28; Meszaros, TB (hooking), 12:49.
Second Period—4, Buffalo, Roy 19, 9:25 (sh). Penalties—Stamkos, TB (tripping), 3:14; Myers, Buf (goaltender interference), 8:51; Thompson, TB (roughing), 12:11; Tampa Bay bench, served by Fedoruk (too many men), 15:33.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Downie 18 (Stamkos, St. Louis), 8:06. 6, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 21 (Stamkos, Purcell), 17:22 (pp). 7, Buffalo, Vanek 23 (Roy), 18:14 (en). 8, Buffalo, Pominville 21 (Connolly, Lydman), 19:26. Penalties—Hedman, TB (tripping), 2:26; Connolly, Buf (slashing), 16:37. Shots on Goal—Buffalo 14-9-5—28. Tampa Bay 4-12-9—25. Power-play opportunities—Buffalo 1 of 7; Tampa Bay 1 of 4. Goalies—Buffalo, Miller 34-15-8 (25 shots-23 saves). Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 18-15-5 (27-22). A—16,868 (19,758).