After the first two periods of play on Tuesday in Tampa Bay, everything seemed to be going according to plan. Despite a severe lack of zone control in the first period and a half, the Bolts employed strong defensive play and an even stronger transition game to command a 3-1 lead with less than two minutes to play in the second period.
Captain Vincent Lecavalier tapped in a Victor Hedman pass through the crease after the second-year defenseman went coast to coast with the puck; he also set up Sean Bergenheim's opening tally with a beautiful lead pass from behind his own blue line.
In truth, even after Buffalo sniper Thomas Vanek was able to find open ice behind the Lightning defense and bang one home to bring the visiting Sabres within one goal, all signs seemed to suggest that the Lightning would continue their record-tying 12-game homestand with yet another victory.
But this is NHL hockey, and momentum can shift in the blink of an eye—or the trip of a skate.
Recent call-up Marc-Andre Bergeron got tangled up with Buffalo forward Drew Stafford, sending Stafford sprawling forward where he collided with Bolt's netminder Dwayne Roloson, who had skated out to challenge a shot by Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold. The collision caught Roloson in the left skate, sending him to his back and the puck straight into the empty net with Roloson helpless to stop it.
A case certainly could have been (and was) made by both Lightning players and coaching staff that goaltender interference should have been called and the goal should have been waved off. Regardless of whether or not this is accurate, the truly frightening thing was not that the referees might have blown a call but rather how the players wearing the Bolts sweaters reacted to this type of adversity.
They completely collapsed.
These types of calls happen all too often in the NHL; it was not a clear-cut case of goaltender interference and the Lightning let themselves feel cheated. Rather than rallying around each other to find a way to win a hard-fought game, they let go of the little things they had been controlling up until that point—specifically coverage in their own zone and moving the puck out into the neutral zone efficiently and safely—and they paid a hefty price for it, as the Bolts gave up five goals in the third period before Lecavalier stopped the bleeding with a power-play tally with under five minutes to play, as the Sabres went on to win in a 7-4 laugher.
For a team positioning itself for a potentially deep playoff run, this is certainly not the reaction head coach Guy Boucher wanted to see. Luckily, the Bolts have a lot of season left to figure out how to react when things don't go your way before playoff time.
They also have had three days off to prepare for Saturday's pivotal divisional matchup against the playoff-hungry Hurricanes.
Here's to hoping the Bolts get back up off the ground quicker than they did Tuesday.
Now to wrap up—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Tuesday night's game.
Victor Hedman may have taken an enormous step forward Tuesday night. His play that started with a blocked shot, then an aggressive forecheck into the neutral zone followed by a win in a footrace allowed him to single-handedly create Vincent Lecavalier's goal in the first period. Definitely highlight-reel material and a perfect example of what he can become in the future—a dominating two-way presence.
Sean Bergenheim again proved that Steve Yzerman knew what he was doing when he signed the Finnish forward this offseason; Bergenheim worked hard in both zones and was rewarded with two goals after nifty plays by Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone.
Not to ignore the excellent play of the Sabres players in an impressive win, I have to give credit to Drew Stafford—the often overlooked forward has proven to be an offensive force for the Sabres this year, as he recorded his third hat trick this season.
Mental toughness of Lightning players; on Tuesday night, it was severely lacking and they paid dearly for it.
Losing Ryan Malone and Matt Smaby in the same game could potentially spell doom for the Bolts, especially with shut-down man Mike Lundin still nursing an injury of his own. We'll see what Guy Boucher does to try to fill the holes—with Marc-Andre Bergeron originally intended to be the seventh defenseman and power-play specialist, he may have to play more time at even strength and thus shore up his notoriously pungent play in his own zone. He was a game-worst minus-4 on Tuesday...
Steve Downie certainly had a few choice words for one of the referees...I could make out at least one f-bomb from the broadcast I was watching. But hey, that's what he's there for. I'm sure those of you who own him in fantasy hockey don't mind the 10-minute misconduct penalty.
Allowing five straight goals in the third period is never pretty, but the way the Sabres seemed to score with such ease was truly tough to watch in the third period.