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Beside the point ...

LIGHTNING 1, SABRES 1: Tampa Bay squanders another chance against the NHL's worst team to move into a first-place tie in the Southeast.

By DAMIEN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Ben Clymer battles against the boards with Buffalo Sabres Brian Campbell, left, and Jason Botterill.
TAMPA -- Somewhere down the line, the Lightning may look at the point it got for Sunday's 1-1 tie with the Sabres and smile.

A point is a point, after all, especially when fighting for playoff position.

On the other hand, Buffalo (statistically, anyway) is one of the NHL's worst teams. And a victory in front of an announced 19,907 at the St. Pete Times Forum would have tied Tampa Bay with the Capitals for first place in the Southeast Division.

So it was with some head-hanging that Lightning players spoke of a game they said they played sloppily and center Brad Richards called "a missed chance."

Tampa Bay's 76 points are one behind Washington in the division, four behind the fifth-place Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference.

"It's a little bit of a bad feeling," Richards said. "We were trying to make plays that didn't work. Passes into the middle; soft plays."

"It was not our best effort," goalie Nikolai Khabibulin said. "I know we can play a lot better than we did tonight. I thought we played a little better than they did, but not enough to win."

That has been a theme for this season's games with the Sabres. Buffalo is 1-0-2 and for the second time at the Times Forum thwarted a chance for the Lightning to get to first place.

Even more bewildering is the Sabres' 6-0-3 record against Tampa Bay since the Lightning's last victory in February 2001.

Vinny Lecavalier called it a "coincidence."

"Every team is good in the NHL," said the center, whose career-high 26th goal 9:51 into the second period on the power play gave Tampa Bay the lead. "They have a good goalkeeper, a good defense. It's not like we're playing an American League team or a pee wee team. In the NHL, any team can beat anybody on any night."

Either team might have been beaten if not for their goaltenders.

Buffalo's Mika Noronen made 27 saves to follow up the 29 he made during Saturday's shutout of the Panthers. Khabibulin, 7-0-2 in his past nine starts with a 1.13 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage, made 26.

Noronen stopped Richards' breakaway in the second period and three shots by Lecavalier in the third. Khabibulin stopped Jason Botterill's tip try and Tim Connolly's bang-bang rebound chance in the third.

One that got away was Ales Kotalik's power play goal 1:47 after the Lightning went ahead.

"We battled to the bitter end," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I thought our team responded great. We skated better than they did in the third period."

"You want to be sharp every game. Some games you just don't have that," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It wasn't through a lack of effort. I thought the guys were ready to play. We just weren't sharp."

So take the point and run.

"We take the point and take the positive out of it," defenseman Nolan Pratt said. "But it wasn't our best game. Passes bounced and missed guys. The longer you let a team hang around the tougher you make it on yourself."

How much of that was attributable to a letdown after Friday's emotional 4-3 victory over the Avalanche is debatable.

The coaching staff warned players to guard against such a thing, and there was enough at stake to expect the team to come out with some fire.

Give the Sabres credit. At 3-1-1-1 in their past six games, including victories over the Stars and Maple Leafs, they are enjoying the spoiler role. The Lightning could not, for whatever reason, match the intensity and crispness of the attack it brought against Colorado.

"It is, but it's not," Khabibulin said when asked if a letdown was a reasonable explanation. "It doesn't matter. It's not like we won the last game and made it to the playoffs. We still have a job to do. We need some points and wins."

On Sunday, one of each got away.

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