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Lightning rebound with rout of Sabres

Nikita Kucherov nets a hat trick as Tampa Bay takes control early and piles on against struggling Buffalo.
Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18), right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrate after a goal by Kucherov during the second period of Tuesday's game against the Sabres in Buffalo, N.Y.
Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18), right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrate after a goal by Kucherov during the second period of Tuesday's game against the Sabres in Buffalo, N.Y. [ JOSHUA BESSEX | AP ]
Published Jan. 12|Updated Jan. 12

After missing nearly three months to injury, it hasn’t taken long for Nikita Kucherov to shake off the rust.

In his third game back, Kucherov recorded his fourth career hat trick Tuesday night against the Sabres, propelling the Lightning to a 6-1 win at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

Against a struggling Sabres team that has won just three of its last 20 games, Tampa Bay rebounded from a frustrating loss Saturday against Boston by scoring the first five goals and never looking back.

“Definitely a lot better,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who scored his team-high 17th goal and assisted on two of Kucherov’s goals. “We knew we didn’t play our best last game, so we wanted to come out and get a good start ,and I thought we did.”

The Lightning led 2-0 after one period, and Kucherov scored on the first shot of the second, 27 seconds in, with Tampa Bay on the power play. He took a pass from Stamkos and rifled a wrister from the top of the right circle past goaltender Malcolm Subban, who had just replaced injured starter Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

Kucherov’s second goal was set up by a nifty move from Corey Perry midway through the second period. Perry took the puck at the blue line, skated to the right dot and veered toward the near post before feeding Kucherov across the crease.

Kucherov finished the Lightning’s scoring with 6:03 left in the game on a one-timer from the center point through traffic in front of the net.

“We all know how good he is,” Stamkos said. “We see it every day. So if you give them time and space, that’s what he’s going to do. That’s why he’s one of the best in the world.”

Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) shoots during the second period.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) shoots during the second period. [ JOSHUA BESSEX | AP ]

Kucherov had two key assists in his return on Thursday but was visibly frustrated by his inability to finish. He missed the net on five of his eight shot attempts, and in Saturday’s loss to Boston he had seven attempts but again came up empty.

“I think it’s everything,” Kucherov said when asked about the toughest thing to get back after missing so much time. “You don’t play for so long and then you’re jumping in right away and then in a game, and it’s everything. You need a little time to get to get used to it.”

Kucherov and his teammates had much more space to shoot against the outmanned Sabres. The Lightning were a much different team than the one that looked outworked against the Bruins. They ruled in puck possession, executed on the forecheck and dominated in zone time.

“We’ve been up and down these last couple weeks, (so) you’ve got to take advantage of games like (Tuesday),” Cooper said. “They’re without a bunch of guys, so we wanted to jump on them early and take control of the game, and we did.”

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For the first time in three weeks, the Lightning entered a game without a single player or coach in COVID protocol. And despite being without defenseman Ryan McDonagh, their roster was almost as whole as it’s been since the beginning of the season

Ondrej Palat scored Tampa Bay’s first goal 2:16 into the game, but the Lightning’s second-leading scorer didn’t have a shift after leaving the ice with just over seven minutes remaining in the second period. His mid-game departure seemed to be primarily a precaution.

“Pally’s working through some things,” Cooper said, “so we just thought that anytime we can get him some rest, we’re going to get him some rest, and that’s what we did (Tuesday).”

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 17 of 18 shots to improve his career record against the Sabres to 12-1-1 with a 1.77 goals against average.

He wasn’t challenged much but made two critical saves on first-period breakaways with the game still close. He held the Sabres scoreless until Vinnie Hinostroza cleaned up Colin Miller’s rebound for a goal 5-1/2 minutes into the third period.

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