TAMPA, Fla. – The Buffalo Sabres found salvation Tuesday night in a strange place — the penalty box.
The Sabres made trip after trip to the box, but their penalty killers repeatedly bailed them out. The struggling team has been looking for anything to make it feel good about itself again, and the short-handed unit did the job by carrying the Sabres to a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Just the battle level and competitive nature we had was outstanding,” Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston said after his first NHL victory. “It was great, and I’m really happy for our team because we’ve seen a lot of good signs and we just needed something to keep us moving in the right direction.”
The Sabres ended a four-game losing streak and won for just the second in eight games. They’ve made a habit of celebrating in Tampa Bay Times Forum, improving to 26-9-3 in the Lightning’s home rink.
“It was more of the game we need to play, and we’ll see if we can take the confidence and turn it into something here,” said goaltender Ryan Miller, who made 30 saves against the NHL’s highest-scoring team.
The Lightning had plenty of opportunities to add to their goal total, but the Sabres’ penalty killers went 6 for 6 to shut them down.
“Our No. 1 penalty killer is Millsie, and he came up with some huge saves,” said defenseman Mike Weber, who played a game-high 6:46 of short-handed time. “Obviously, we don’t want to go to the box that much, but to get a great effort from our killers was amazing.”
The short-handed effort allowed the Sabres to open the third period in a 1-1 tie. Tampa had dominated final periods this season, outscoring opponents, 33-21, but Buffalo needed just 52 seconds to show it was tired of losing.
Thomas Vanek deflected a shot and followed it behind the Tampa net. He quickly dumped the puck toward the slot, and Tyler Myers fired a shot home before goaltender Mathieu Garon could set himself.
“It always feels good to score,” Myers said. “It felt unbelievable to get the win after the way things have been going.”
It initially looked like the downward trend would continue. The Lightning needed just 1:24 to put the Sabres in an all-too-familiar early hole. Miller stopped Teddy Purcell’s long-range shot, but the rebound went to a driving Steven Stamkos. The All-Star center easily found the net for his NHL-leading 14th goal.
The Sabres caught a break to tie the game. Cody Hodgson collected a carom below the goal line and dumped the puck toward the crease. It struck Tampa defenseman Sami Salo and bounced into the net with 9:58 left.
“We got down early, and our guys came right back and got a goal,” Rolston said. “That’s a good sign for a hockey team.”
The Sabres killed two penalties in the first, but that was merely a warm-up for the second period.
Buffalo’s parade to the penalty box began with 5:15 gone when Myers departed for high-sticking. Miller’s best friends were the post, which stopped Stamkos, and Patrick Kaleta, who hit the ice to take a bullet from the stick of Marc-Andre Bergeron.
“I love to be able to contribute to the team that way,” Kaleta said.
Only 23 seconds after Myers came on the ice, Drew Stafford took his spot in the box for high-sticking. Myers trudged off again for hooking just 1:14 later, giving the Lightning a 5-on-3 for 46 seconds.
They repeatedly set up Stamkos for one-timers from the left side, but Miller read the play as if it were an elementary school picture book and easily made the stops.
“We were doing a good job of staying back and staying in the lanes, and they’ve got to move around the perimeter,” Miller said. “It makes his shot a little further out, makes his shot a little more predictable.
“We didn’t spend as much time running in our zone, and that translates to a game we can win.”
They Sabres will go for two in a row Thursday when the visit the Florida Panthers.
“They did a lot of things right and got rewarded for it,” Rolston said. “The goal now is to build on that.”