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Two shorthanded goals help Lightning past Sabres

The once-struggling penalty kill has become a strength for Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Cedric Paquette (13) scores, beating Buffalo Sabres goaltender Carter Hutton (40) on a shorthanded breakaway goal during third-period action at Amalie Arena on Monday. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

TAMPA — Shorthanded goals are a bonus statistically. They don’t even factor into the penalty kill ranking.

But on Monday, the Lightning’s two shorties aptly demonstrated the strength of their penalty kill. And they just may have made the difference in 5-2 win over Buffalo.

When Kevin Shattenkirk was called for tripping, the Lightning had a one-goal lead and had been outplayed for much of the game. By the time he exited the box, the game was firmly in Tampa Bay’s hands.

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Cedric Paquette and Ondrej Palat scored 49 seconds apart, on the same kill. Giving up a shorthanded goal can be demoralizing, but two is on another level.

The first goal came 10 seconds into the kill. Anthony Cirelli picked up the puck along the boards with plenty of space. He sent an outlet pass up to Paquette. The puck landed in Paquette’s skates, but he corralled it without losing speed and then roofed a shot over Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton.

Paquette called it a great pass, saying he just tried to “be the guy” available to receive it and then got lucky.

Only 49 seconds later, Mathieu Joseph and Palat sprung free with a two-on-one against Brandon Montour. Joseph flung the puck across to Palat, who took a one-timer on the open net.

No one would care how many penalties the Lightning took if they killed them all like that.

Going into the game, they had not scored a shorthanded goal this season, along with five other teams including Buffalo. But the penalty kill had made marked improvement.

“We didn’t change much,” Paquette said. “There were some mental mistakes we made earlier in the season. Right now, we’re getting the bounces, getting the puck out of zone and making the blocked shots for our goalie.”

On Oct. 31, the Lightning’s penalty kill was ranked 28th in the league. It had been hovering near the bottom of the league for weeks and continually cost the team as their penalties piled up.

In the past nine games, since Nov. 1, the Lightning have killed 27 of 28 penalties (Winnipeg scored that one power-play goal). Over that stretch, Tampa Bay has the best kill in the league. Overall on the season, they’ve moved up to 19th.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who consistently leads the team in penalty kill minutes, credits the team’s commitment level, aggression and better execution for the change.

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“It’s better execution as far as getting in lanes, being in passing lanes or getting the puck all the way down the ice,” he said. “No doubt, we can’t forget about (Andrei Vasilevskiy), too. He’s made some humongous saves in this last stretch for us.”

The Lightning are showing better chemistry on the kill. The forward pairs and the defensive pairs are feeding off each other well. They play with more confidence, anticipating where each will be.

Seeing a player alone on the boards, trying to get the puck out of the zone and getting in a position for an outlet pass, like Paquette did, is not a far-fetched play. But a month ago, players were looking to cover for each other more than set up the next play. They were too used to things going wrong.

Having a few kills go right in a row creates confidence, which snowballs. Now, instead of covering, players are looking ahead to create opportunities. Instead of being hemmed into their zone, they end up with two shorthanded goals.

“You get a couple of kills in a row and you start to feel good about yourselves,” McDonagh said. “That’s what we need to continue, that aggressive confidence and good execution.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos

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