Sabres goalie Chad Johnson makes a save on Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat on Thursday. ©2015, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres fall apart early, lose to Lightning

BUFFALO – Following a wretched first period Thursday in which the Sabres fell behind 3-0, coach Dan Bylsma, desperate for a spark, yanked goalie Linus Ullmark, a rookie whose fine performances had the upstart club gunning for its first three-game winning streak in 11 months.

“I don’t know how he’s going to handle it,” Bylsma said following the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, “but I made it pretty clear it wasn’t because he wasn’t ready or he wasn’t able to make a save.”

The Sabres abandoned Ullmark early, allowing the struggling Lightning, losers of five of its last six outings, to annihilate them. Tampa Bay hadn’t held a lead after 20 minutes all season.

“We hung our goalie out to dry with those opportunities,” Bylsma said.

Sabres defenseman Cody Franson added: “That’s not on Linus at all.”

The Sabres recovered nicely with Chad Johnson in net, pumping 21 shots on goal during the second period and getting another electrifying goal from rookie Jack Eichel. But the Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference champions, clamped down late, limiting the Sabres to only two third-period shots.

The Lightning have now beaten the Sabres seven straight times.

“I think we’re a lot to blame for that one,” Franson said. “Give them credit, they’re a great team, they did a lot of great things in that game tonight. But our missed execution in the first period put us behind the eight ball early. I thought we did a great job coming on in the second. …

“They know how to close games out. They made it tough on us to try to crawl back into that one.”

The Lightning had just three third-period shots. The five total shots between the teams – the Sabres didn’t register their first until more than halfway through – tied Buffalo’s franchise record for fewest in a period, according to the team.

Still, the Sabres had some strong chances late before the 18,161 fans inside the First Niagara Center, including a breakaway David Legwand flubbed before he could shoot.

“If we had played the whole game like we played the second period and the third period, we would’ve been fine,” Bylsma said.

What happened early? At 5:55, a wide-open Steven Stamkos unleashed his wicked one-timer. The Sabres would’ve been wise to cover the former 60-goal scorer. Tyler Johnson followed at 11:35 and Nikita Kucherov scored at 18:20.

“We gave a good team too many easy opportunities to score,” Bylsma said. “They took heavily advantage of it. Some checking assignments and missed plays, and Stamkos has got a one-timer and Johnson’s got a look in the slot.”

The Sabres played a near-perfect road game Oct. 17 in Tampa Bay, limiting the Lightning to just a handful of scoring chances before allowing a late power-play goal and losing 2-1.

“We’ve played some pretty good hockey against these guys,” Franson said. “That’s what makes them dangerous, the smallest hiccups end up in the back of your net. They’ve got guys that can put the puck there and capitalize.”

Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges added: “Things are going to happen, mistakes are going to happen. How do you respond? I like the way our team responded. But that goes to show you can’t put yourself in that position in the first place.”

The Sabres positioned themselves for a comeback thanks to Eichel’s team-leading fifth goal, another slick effort in which he beat Andrej Sustr at the blue line before surprising Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with a quick shot as he entered the slot.

“I think he tried to step up on me on my left side,” Eichel said, “and I was able to turn him my other way and get in for a shot.”

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