Jack Quinn, Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson (right) celebrate a goal Saturday afternoon. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres maintain focus, bounce back by beating Lightning: ‘We needed that’

BUFFALO – Just over halfway into Saturday afternoon’s entertaining 5-3 win, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin appeared to have Anthony Cirelli lined up for an open-ice hit before both players suddenly moved.

Dahlin and Cirelli got tangled, and the Tampa Bay Lightning center quickly chased down his opponent, igniting a melee as the Sabres led 2-1. As Cirelli kept Dahlin pinned on the ice, Sabres winger Jeff Skinner zoomed in to help.

Skinner and Cirelli each earned roughing calls. Dahlin, meanwhile, went off for kneeing.

“I kinda jumped away and he jumped away, so it looked ugly, but thanks to Skinny for stepping up,” Dahlin said following the Sabres’ 5-3 win. “We have a great group of guys. We’re protecting each other.”

As the Sabres killed the extra penalty, center Tyson scored short-handed, part of a three-goal second period.

Saturday’s triumph at KeyBank Center featured all sorts distractions that could’ve taken the Sabres off their game. Scrum after scrum erupted between the Atlantic Division foes. Some suspect officiating often drew the ire of the capacity crowd of 19,070 fans.

Still, the Sabres kept their composure and plowed ahead unfazed, downing the Lightning for the second time in 10 days. The win illustrated their growing maturity and, once again, how much the group plays for one another.

“We needed that focus, we needed to be dialed in and really stay consistent,” coach Don Granato said after the Sabres ended their two-game losing streak. “… There was a lot to fight through to make sure we were steadfast and how we wanted to play with pace and pressure, and a lot of things that could’ve caused ups and downs and distractions, I commend our guys staying very dialed in. Because we needed that win. And I think our room knew we needed that win.”

Fresh off Thursday’s 7-1 road loss to the Boston Bruins, the Sabres sorely needed a strong bounce-back effort.

“I liked everybody was pushing, and not afraid to push back,” Granato said.

Rookie winger Jack Quinn extended the Sabres’ lead to 4-1 19:46 into the second period before Skinner’s power-play goal 53 seconds into the third sealed just their 13th home win this season.

Any victory over the Lightning, of course, holds significance. If the Sabres want to go anywhere in the near future, they’re likely going to have to get through a powerhouse that has won two of the last three Stanley Cups.

The Sabres went 2-1-1 against the Lightning this season, utilizing their speed to wreak havoc. They went 1-3-0 last year and hadn’t registered points in three straight games against them since 2014.

“We tried to push the pace in games against them,” Granato said. “It’s good for us that we’re able to push toward identity against a very good hockey team. When you compare it to a year ago, marked improvement in performance and results and outcome. Marked improvement, so a good sign of progress.”

After Brayden Point’s power-play goal opened the scoring at 13:28 into the contest, Sabres center Tage Thompson tied it on the man advantage at 16:15.

Winger Vinnie Hinostroza’s goal 5:35 into the second period put the Sabres up for good.

Nick Perbix and Alex Killorn scored third period goals for the Lightning.

Sabres goalie Eric Comrie made 33 saves to win his fourth straight start, outdueling his counterpart, Brian Elliott, who stopped 29 shots.

In getting knocked out of the game by fighting Tanner Jeannot, Sabres newcomer Riley Stillman earned praise from Granato.

Stillman, a gritty defenseman acquired Monday in a trade, challenged Jeannot 14:30 into the second period.

“Learning his personality and learning more about him, he wanted to do it for his team and his teammates,” Granato said. “He’s in a new place, new fans, new environment and he went into that and I don’t think he was thinking about himself one bit. I think that’s where he got caught.”

Jeannot’s uppercut knocked Stillman to the ice, and the linesman quickly signaled for the trainer. Stillman skated off and did not return.

Granato said Stillman was doing “good” following the game.

“We’ll follow up with more details but just in seeing him after the game walking around here, interacting with teammates, he appears to be pretty normal,” he said.

Granato said in going after Jeannot, Stillman’s “adrenaline got the best of him” in his second game with the Sabres.

“The intent and intention was outstanding for him,” he said. “Again, keep in mind how that team was going. They didn’t like the altercation after Dahls’ hit and it was quiet after that. He sensed and felt he wanted to do something for the new group here and team. I love the compete.”

Earlier in the second period, Stillman’s hit knocked Ian Cole to the ice, drawing a roar from the crowd.

Dahlin returned from a lower-body injury that sidelined him three games, skating just 15 minutes, 43 seconds, more than 10 minutes under his season average.

“By design,” Granato said of the limited minutes. “We wanted to ease him back in knowing that he’s going to push it. What he was dealing with, and his resolve was something that could be aggravated after fatigue sets in, so more minutes. So, at least initially today, playing back-to-back now (Monday and Tuesday), we’ll probably look to manage minutes if possible there.”

Notes: The Sabres held a moment of silence prior to the game to honor Buffalo Firefighter Jason Arno, who died Thursday in a four-alarm blaze. Sabres captain Kyle Okposo sported a Buffalo Fire Department toque during warm-ups. … Lightning coach Jon Cooper benched his top three scorers – captain Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – for the entire third period. “Just felt in the third period they weren’t giving us the best chance to win,” Cooper said. … The Sabres scratched goalie Craig Anderson and defensemen Jacob Bryson and Kale Clague (all healthy).

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