Denis made 32 saves and Brad Richards scored the go-ahead goal seven minutes into the third period, in the Lightning’s 3-2 win over the suddenly sloppy Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
The difference was Denis, who showed poise and provided his teammates confidence by making 16 saves after allowing the Sabres to take a 2-1 lead in the second period when Ales Kotalik sneaked a weak shot in through the goalie’s legs.
“As much as you hate them, they happen every night in the NHL,” Denis said, referring to cheap goals. “But it says a lot about this hockey team. Earlier in the season, a backbreaker like that, maybe the game would have been over. Tonight, it didn’t phase us.”
The Lightning are on a roll. Vincent Lecavalier, with his team-leading 27th, and Dan Boyle also scored in extending Tampa Bay’s win streak to a season-best four games.
Tampa Bay also ended a six-game losing skid against the Sabres, and won for the first time in five trips to Buffalo, including a 7-2 loss on Nov. 20.
“We haven’t gotten four in a row this year, and it’s something we’ve got to start doing,” Richards said. “And it’s also a good confidence boost, winning in this building.”
But what’s wrong with the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres?
They’ve lost four of six, including a season-worst three straight at home. More disturbing is Buffalo’s once potent offence isn’t clicking and the team is committing far too many turnovers.
“I don’t know if it’s confidence or what,” said forward Jason Pominville, who also scored. “At the start of the year, we were winning games and found ways to come back. We’re just not finding those ways right now.”
All three Tampa Bay goals came off Buffalo giveaways.
Richards scored off on an odd-man rush after Sabres co-captain Chris Drury lost the puck at the left boards in the Tampa Bay zone. Richards one-timed in a shot from the right circle, set up by Paul Ranger’s nifty blind backhand pass.
Lecavalier’s game-opening goal came after Martin St. Louis stripped Buffalo’s Teppo Numminen of the puck in the left corner of the Sabres end. And Boyle scored with a shot from the right point after Buffalo’s Jaroslav Spacek failed to clear the zone.
“We made some poor decisions with the puck,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’ve got a bad mixture now. We’re not finishing and we haven’t gotten the key save at the key time.”
The Sabres squandered six power-play opportunities, including one in the final three minutes, when they generated several opportunities, but managed just one shot.
Denis’ best save came with 9:37 remaining, getting across to get a piece of Pominville’s one-timer from the right circle.
“That’s the best I’ve seen Marc Denis play this year,” Lightning coach John Tortorella said. “The second one, yeah, I’m sure he wants that back. … But he was the difference.”
Tortorella was also impressed with how his team recovered after the Sabres scored twice in a 44-second span.
“The team has fight to it, and if it continues to fight, it gives you an opportunity to keep you out of messes,” Tortorella said.
Notes: With an assist, St. Louis extended his points streak to 10 games, a stretch in which he has five goals and nine assists. … Lecavalier and St. Louis were among the reserves named to NHL all-star game at Dallas on Jan. 24. Both entered the game with 59 points, tied for third in the league. … Pominville’s goal was his 20th, giving the Sabres a league-leading four players with 20 goals this season. No other team entered the day with three 20-goal scorers.