Sabres 4, Lightning 1
You are never safe against the Sabres. In fact, teams scoring first against them apparently are setting themselves up for a fall.
Buffalo is 10-1-1 when opponents score first, and that was just what happened Tuesday night in the Sabres' 4-1 victory over the Lightning at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Tampa Bay went ahead 1-0 on Vinny Lecavalier's goal 53 seconds into the game, but Buffalo scored three times in the first period and never looked back.
It was the fourth straight loss, though one came in a shootout, for Tampa Bay (13-13-2), which fell to 7-8-0 at home. The Sabres (21-4-2) are the No. 1 team in the East and, coming off a defeat, avoided losing back-to-back games this season for the first time.
You had to feel bad for Marc Denis. The Lightning goalie lost his seventh straight start, including two in overtime or in a shootout, to remain stuck at 99 career wins. But he had little help as Buffalo, with a league-best 12-2-0 road record, took advantage of giveaways and defensive breakdowns.
Taking most advantage was Daniel Briere, who finished off his first career hat trick with a third-period tally.
The good news for Tampa Bay is it gathered itself after being snowplowed in the first period and avoided the pitfalls that resulted in last month's 7-2 loss at Buffalo.
It outshot the Sabres 30-25, and after the first period played Buffalo fairly evenly, though it couldn't bury its chances against goalie Ryan Miller.
Lecavalier struck first. The center stole the puck from Jochen Hecht behind the Buffalo net and carried to the side. Miller, expecting his teammate to carry the puck around the net, was caught unaware and Lecavalier slipped the puck through Miller's legs.
Andre Roy, on his first shift, and Sabres tough guy Andrew Peters squared off with Roy landing the first punch, then wrestling Peters to the ground at 2:10.
The Sabres tied the score at 7:17 after a blown coverage by the Lightning defense.
Denis made a nice left-leg save of Dmitri Kalinin's shot. But Jason Pominville picked up the rebound and shoveled it to Briere, who tapped it in. The problem for the Lightning was defensemen Paul Ranger and Filip Kuba left Pominville and Briere alone in front of the net.
Buffalo went ahead 2-1 with 9:26 left and Ranger was again involved, though the play was more a fluke than a mistake.
After Miller made a huge stop on Brad Richards, the Sabres stormed into the Lightning zone two-on-one. Nathan Paetsch's pass hit Ranger's stick and went to Chris Drury. Denis, anticipating the puck stronger to the other side of the net, was caught leaning and could not cover the gap Drury exploited between Denis and the post.
It was 3-1 with 2:45 left after Hecht took the puck away from Richards in the Lightning zone and passed to Briere, who scored from in close.
The Sabres would have scored again had it not been for Denis' incredible diving stick save on Maxim Afinogenov.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at (727) 893-8622.