BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jon Cooper let the Lightning find its own way out of a bad first period.
The coach and his assistants left the players alone during the first intermission against the Sabres on Saturday after they were outplayed in the period for the second game in a row.
It worked. Tampa Bay figured itself out and picked up the pace, step by step as the game went on. And it ended up with a 5-3 win.
"(The leaders), they knew what they had to do," Cooper said. "As the game went on, they got stronger and stronger, and they led the charge."
Brayden Point scored 26 seconds into the game, but the Lightning took only five more shots in the first period. Three penalties didn't help matters, but Tampa Bay didn't do much with the even-strength time it had, either. The whole period looked like one long power play, the kind where a team is stuck in its end the whole time.
"We sleepwalked through the first period," Cooper said, comparing it to the Lightning's previous game, Thursday's 3-1 win against the Hurricanes. "Especially against a team that had to travel and (play) a back-to-back (Buffalo lost at Carolina the night before), we didn't execute. You would have thought it was the first day of training camp."
In not addressing the team himself — something he also didn't do in the previous game — Cooper trusted the players to hold each other accountable and take enough pride in their game to turn things around.
He and the assistants put a plan in place for the game, but it's the players' team.
Play was much more even in the second period, especially the latter half. Ondrej Palat scored the period's only goal, on a beautiful assist from Mikhail Sergachev, to send the Lightning into the final period tied at 2.
"If we're going to keep going here — and our goal is to keep going deep in the spring — (the players are) going to have to find their way out of some problems," Cooper said. "This was them taking ownership."
Cooper knows that to make a deep run into June in search of the Stanley Cup, players need to play for each other, not worry about their ice time or individual stats. He has the right team for that.
Nikita Kucherov, who had a goal and two assists in the game, leads the league in points with 75, but he doesn't like to give himself too much credit. At one point, he said that with the team playing as well as it is — the Lightning is on an 18-1-1 run — someone has to get the points. Brayden Point is tied for third in the league in goals at 29 and says he's not among the top five players on this team.
The players are looking big picture.
"This group, this year, it just feels different," said captain Steven Stamkos, who scored the winning goal with 5:16 left in the game, breaking a 3-3 tie, as the Lightning scored three times in the third.
"We're finding ways, and we're confident we're going to win. The penalty kill was absolutely huge (Saturday; Buffalo was 0-for-4 on the power play). We found a way."
Cooper said that with most of the players having been together for a few years, they are comfortable standing up to each other and holding each other accountable. That makes a difference when things go wrong.
He started to list the team's leaders: "the Stamkoses, (Ryan) Callahans, the (Ryan) McDonaghs, the (Dan) Girardis and (Anton) Stralmans … " and trailed off; there are many.
"You want to put them in positions to have success in those roles, but they have to take pride in that," Cooper said. "That's what the team is doing, taking pride in that."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Point 29 (Johnson, Kucherov), 0:26. 2, Buffalo, Reinhart 10 (Skinner, Dahlin), 5:47. 3, Buffalo, Thompson 6 (Girgensons, Sobotka), 19:50. Penalties—Coburn, TB, (roughing), 3:17, Stamkos, TB, (tripping), 10:57, Gourde, TB, (holding), 12:25.
Second Period—4, Tampa Bay, Palat 6 (Sergachev, Hedman), 7:50. Penalties—None.
Third Period—5, Buffalo, Scandella 3 (Pominville, Sheary), 5:54. 6, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 22 (Stamkos), 6:17. 7, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 24 (Hedman, Kucherov), 14:44. 8, Tampa Bay, Callahan 5 (Killorn, Cirelli), 18:41 (pp). Penalties—Sergachev, TB, (high sticking), 13:27, Girgensons, BUF, (cross checking), 13:27, Sergachev, TB, served by Erne, (high sticking), 13:27, Eichel, BUF, (elbowing), 13:50, Pilut, BUF, (holding), 16:45.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 6-11-13_30. Buffalo 16-12-5_33. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2. Buffalo 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Domingue 15-4-0 (33 shots-30 saves). Buffalo, Ullmark 9-2-3 (30-25).