Just as it looked like so much was slipping away from the Lightning — on the scoreboard, in the standings — Anthony Cirelli and Brayden Point came up big in the third period Friday night.
A two-goal lead on the Sabres had turned into a 5-4 deficit, but Cirelli and Point scored in 47 seconds, rallying Tampa Bay to a huge 7-5 win in their final regular-season home game at Amalie Arena in front of announced sellout crowd of 19,092.
"We knew this game was a big one for us if we wanted a chance to win the division," said Cirelli, who had his first multigoal game. "It was a good third period in that we came out there and played the right way and got the results we needed to get."
With the win, the Lightning (54-23-4) maintained control of its destiny relating to the Atlantic Division title. It can clinch the title, and home-ice advantage through the Eastern Conference final, with a win in regulation or overtime tonight at Carolina in their regular-season finale, or a regulation loss by Boston against Ottawa tonight.
"Is there anything else that needs to be said? You win a hockey game, you win the division," coach Jon Cooper said. "That would be an unreal accomplishment."
If the Lightning wins the division, it would open the playoffs against the East's undetermined second wild card. If Boston wins, Tampa Bay would face a tougher opponent in Toronto in the opening round.
Tampa Bay clinched the win with an empty-net goal with 1:26 left, a long shot from defenseman Victor Hedman that rolled down the length of the ice and banked in off the right post.
Coming off a sterling 4-0 win against Boston on Tuesday night, the Lightning wasn't nearly as sharp Friday, giving up three straight goals in the second period to the lowest-scoring team in the league to fall behind.
But Cirelli came up with his second goal of the game to tie it at 5 with 13:45 remaining in the game, and before that could even be announced, Point stepped up with his 32nd goal for the lead with 12:57 left. Alex Killorn had assists on both goals, giving him three for the night.
"We knew we needed to be much better than we showed in the second period," said center Yanni Gourde, who had a goal and two assists to set Lightning rookie records for goals and points in a season. "We came out with the right mind-set. We played simple, we got bounces, and when you work like that, you get those bounces."
And this time, the Lightning did not relinquish the lead.
Early in the second, the Lightning led 4-2 and had a four-minute power play, but it came up empty and Buffalo seized momentum. The Sabres scored twice to tie the score, then took the lead on a power-play goal from Kyle Okposo with 1:15 left in the period, taking a 5-4 lead into the final period.
Buffalo went into the game with the league's worst record and its lowest scoring average, but it scored five goals in the first two periods.
The teams combined for five goals in the opening 10 minutes. Cirelli needed only 30 seconds to put the Lightning ahead with his fourth goal of the season, but Buffalo answered to tie the score with 17:03 left in the first.
Nikita Kucherov scored next for his 39th goal of the season with 15:25 left, but Buffalo again quickly tied it, with Andrei Vasilevskiy giving up a tipped goal with 13:27 left.
Gourde made it 3-2 with 10:20 left in the first, setting the Lightning rookie records for goals (25, bettering Tyler Johnson from 2013-14).
Gourde's three points in the game gave him 64, bettering the 62 of Brad Richards in his 2000-01 rookie year.
Defenseman Dan Girardi added to the lead just 64 seconds into the second, with an assist from Kucherov, who hit 100 points on the season. Kucherov is just the third Lightning player with 100 points in a season, joining Vinny Lecavalier (2006-07) and Marty St. Louis (2006-07).
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Cirelli 4 (Gourde), 0:30. 2, Buffalo, Mittelstadt 1 (Rodrigues, Scandella), 2:57 (pp). 3, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 39, 4:35. 4, Buffalo, Nylander 1 (Ristolainen, Guhle), 6:32. 5, Tampa Bay, Gourde 25 (Killorn), 9:40. Penalties—Hedman, TB, (delay of game), 1:16; Conacher, TB, (high sticking), 17:22.
Second Period—6, Tampa Bay, Girardi 6 (Palat, Kucherov), 1:04. 7, Buffalo, Pominville 15 (Rodrigues, Guhle), 8:59. 8, Buffalo, Nolan 4 (Larsson), 15:58. 9, Buffalo, Okposo 15 (O'Reilly, Eichel), 18:45 (pp). Penalties—Scandella, BUF, (roughing), 4:24; Scandella, BUF, (roughing), 4:24; Miller, TB, (high sticking), 9:55; Killorn, TB, (hooking), 17:46; Scandella, BUF, (high sticking), 19:50.
Third Period—10, Tampa Bay, Cirelli 5 (Killorn, Sergachev), 6:15. 11, Tampa Bay, Point 32 (Gourde, Killorn), 7:02. 12, Tampa Bay, Hedman 17 (Vasilevskiy), 18:34. Penalties—Conacher, TB, (tripping), 8:19. Shots on Goal—Buffalo 9-16-7—32. Tampa Bay 13-5-16—34. Power-play opportunities—Buffalo 2 of 5; Tampa Bay 0 of 3. Goalies—Buffalo, C.Johnson 10-16-3 (33 shots-27 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 44-17-3 (32-27). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:25. Referees—Frederick L'Ecuyer, Kendrick Nicholson. Linesmen—Bevan Mills, Tim Nowak.