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Sabres hold Lightning back

SABRES 4, LIGHTNING 1: Tampa Bay lets chance to take over first place in the Southeast get away.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003


TAMPA -- The Lightning could not have asked for a better setup in its attempt to take over first place in the Southeast.

All it needed was a victory over the Sabres -- statistically the NHL's worst team -- while playing at home, where Tampa Bay had won three straight and was 10 games over .500.

So much for planning. The Lightning lost 4-1 at the St. Pete Times Forum before an announced crowd of 16,654 that had plenty of reasons to boo.

This is the kind of game the Lightning is expected to win. This is a game a team fighting for its first playoff berth since 1996 must win. But the Sabres were sharper up front and took a 2-0 first-period lead.

"We took them a little lightly and weren't ready to go," left wing Chris Dingman said. "We were not ready to pay the price and battle. We weren't ready to win the game."

Add an egregious mistake by left wing Vinny Prospal that led to Maxim Afinogenov's goal which put Buffalo ahead 1-0, and stellar goaltending by Buffalo's Martin Biron, who made 30 saves and held off Tampa Bay in the third period when the score was 2-1, and the game is one to forget.

Except, perhaps, for a six-minute span in the third period, when the Lightning turned on the juice, and a late second-period brawl between Lightning goalie John Grahame and Buffalo agitator Vaclav Varada.

The fight, with 53.4 seconds left, got Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich ejected for being the third player in. It also gave Tampa Bay a two-minute power play because Biron left the crease.

Brad Richards took advantage 24 seconds into the third period to cut Tampa Bay's deficit to one. But Miroslav Satan's power-play goal at 12:14 made it 3-1. Varada scored into an empty net with 45.1 seconds left.

The loss kept Tampa Bay one point behind the first-place Capitals with a game in hand. It dropped the Lightning into the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

"Very disappointing," Grahame said. "These are the games you have to win. We didn't get the job done."

That was most notable in the first period. Prospal fired a blind pass into the slot in the Lightning zone directly to Afinogenov, who had Grahame at his mercy. The goal at 3:24 was the first for the right wing, who played his 13th game after missing the first 46 with post-concussion syndrome.

Coach John Tortorella called Prospal's mistake "unforgivable."

"It gives them a reason to play," he said. "We put them right in the game and we're swimming upstream. ... That's mental mistakes. If it's a young kid who makes that mistake, yeah, it's the process. But not Vinny Prospal. It can't happen. If we want to go where we want to be at the end of the year, it just can't happen."

Alexei Zhitnik made the score 2-0 at 9:25 on a shot that appeared to deflect off the blade of defenseman Stan Neckar and into the top corner of the net.

The loss broke Tampa Bay's five-game unbeaten streak (3-0-2) and increased its winless streak against the Sabres to eight (0-6-2).

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff could not explain the domination but was not surprised his team, with 48 points and 18 victories, played with determination.

"Everyone wants to believe our team has quit," Ruff said. "We want to play the role of spoiler. We're going to lose our share of games, but we're going to keep coming."

"This is a team that has some good players," Lightning left wing Dave Andreychuk said. "They shouldn't be where they are. They're well coached. They're a good hockey team."

Tampa Bay looked like a good one too, beginning with Richards' goal. But Biron stopped several chances, and Prospal whiffed on a point-blank shot.

"We've got to have a better start," Grahame said. "We have to play 60 minutes in all these games. You take one shift off and you can see what happens."

You blow a perfectly good setup.

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