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Stars, intensity rise; oh, Lightning loses

SABRES 4, LIGHTNING 3 (SO): The coach and players are upbeat after team's first shootout.

By TOM JONES
Published October 14, 2005


TAMPA - Even Lightning coach John Tortorella, often the king of doom and gloom, admitted it was no time to panic. But Thursday night's game against Buffalo carried a little extra significance, especially for a game barely a week into a long season.

You could see it in the Lightning practices this week. The pace was faster, no-nonsense.

You could hear it in Tortorella's voice. The tone was serious, no-nonsense.

You could see it in the players' eyes. The look was determined, no-nonsense.

It didn't exactly fall into the category of "must-win," but the Lightning surely slept a lot better Thursday night after its game against Buffalo.

Now, here's the kicker: the Lightning lost. But it did gain a point despite losing the first shootout game in team history. The Sabres escaped with a 4-3 victory after winning the shootout 2-0 in front of 20,184 at the St. Pete Times Forum.

But all in all?

"It was a step in the right direction," forward Fredrik Modin said.

The Lightning found itself in an awkward spot after four games in which it produced only two victories and nine goals. Perhaps it comes with the territory of living up to greater expectations after winning a Stanley Cup. Whatever the reason, the Lightning was asked to dissect its problems and explain its woes as if a 2-2 record was cause for anxiety.

But, in a way, the Lightning's sleepy start did require some explanation. At least Thursday, it started to put some of the skepticism to rest with its best effort of the season.

After struggling for four games, several of the Lightning's stars shined again. Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and Vinny Prospal each scored in a game the Lightning thought it could have and should have won.

"Our top guys were creating scoring chances, and when they're doing that," center Tim Taylor said, "we're going to win most of the time."

It nearly won Thursday, but a turn of events in the game's final 25 minutes of regulation created a bizarre and historic ending.

Buffalo tied the score at 3 with 8:47 left when Maxim Afinogenov deflected a knuckleball past Lightning goalie John Grahame on a Toni Lydman shot that was headed well wide of the net.

The Lightning could've grabbed the game late, but Marty St. Louis was stopped by goalie Ryan Miller on a breakaway, one of about a dozen good scoring opportunities St. Louis' line had.

"Our line played well," said Modin, who plays with St. Louis and Richards. "It's always good when you're getting chances, but we have to start converting those chances."

The Lightning eventually sent the game to the shootout, but only after surviving three penalties in the five-minute sudden-death overtime that gave Buffalo a two-man advantage for the final 1:48.

Tortorella was upset the Lightning had only two power plays (to Buffalo's nine). He was upset over undisciplined penalties taken by Pavel Kubina and Dave Andreychuk, to name two. And he still isn't crazy about the shootout.

But, he was pleased with his team.

"We played much better," Tortorella said. "Everything about our game was better except discipline penalties as far as penalties. You could just sense that we were beginning to come tonight. ... From where we were before this game to where we were after this game, there were a lot of positives."

Unfortunately, one of the negatives was losing the first shootout in team history. Daniel Briere scored for Buffalo, while Tim Connolly was stopped by Grahame, who had a superb game in goal. Miller, however, stopped St. Louis and Richards.

When Thomas Vanek beat Grahame on Buffalo's third shot, the game was over.

"But we're going to take a lot from this game," Taylor said. "I think even though we lost, this was a good step for us."