Ilya Lyubushkin had scored zero goals in his first 41 games with the Buffalo Sabres. In his five-year NHL career, the gritty Russian defenseman had scored just three goals in 252 contests, his last coming 10 months ago.
But when Lyubushkin grabbed the puck from Lightning captain Steven Stamkos in overtime Thursday and set off on a rare short-handed breakaway, Sabres coach Don Granato knew something special was about to happen.
“It was weird in the sense that you just felt he was going to score,” Granato told reporters in Tampa Bay after Lyubushkin’s goal gave the Sabres a thrilling 6-5 victory. “This is too good to be true.”
Lyubushkin looked like a seasoned goal scorer as he zoomed toward goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, unleashing a wicked wrist shot when he reached the top of the right circle.
“I just see straight line, just go (as) fast as possible,” Lyubushkin told reporters.
PLAY THE GUMMY BEAR SONG NOW!!!!#LetsGoBuffalo pic.twitter.com/WHZt6GJqQN
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) February 24, 2023
Lyubushkin’s first goal since April 24, 2022, a 44-game stretch, ignited a wild celebration.
“This guy is loved by his teammates the way he is, brings so much positive energy,” said Granato, whose Sabres can move into the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot tonight if they beat the Florida Panthers in regulation.
How rare is it for a defenseman to score an unassisted short-handed overtime goal? Lyubushkin became just the second to register one since the NHL began tracking goals by strength in 1933-34, according to OptaSTATS. Ott Heller scored the only other one on Feb. 18, 1937.
Lyubushkin’s goal is Sabres’ the first short-handed overtime tally during the regular season. Jason Pominville, of course, scored a short-handed overtime goal on May 13, 2006 to send the Sabres to the Eastern Conference final.
Almost fittingly, Lyubushkin created his goal with some dogged defensive work, hectoring Stamkos and forcing him to give up the puck.
On Tuesday, Granato said after enduring two early-season injuries and often playing hurt, Lyubushkin had found a groove and eliminated some hesitation from his game with help from coaches Marty Wilford and Dan Girardi.
“We felt that he was a lot more capable than he was performing,” he said. “We had lots of talks with him and video with him and pushed him just to try to breathe a little bit. I think he’s settled down and settled in and he’s been very good. By virtue of that, we see more skill.
“He’s a rugged, hard-nosed defenseman and he’ll always be, but there is some underlying skill that we’re seeing. We’re seeing a little bit more of that just to make simple plays and reads.”
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak will have a hearing today for elbowing Sabres captain Kyle Okposo in the face in the third period Thursday, the NHL Department of Player Safety announced this morning.
No penalty was called on the play.
Update: The league has suspended Cernak two games.
Cernak puts the elbow to Okposo’s face #LetsGoBuffalo #TBLightning pic.twitter.com/J3qHvq07hv
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) February 24, 2023
The league suspended Cernak for two games in November 2019 after he elbowed Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin in the face, giving him a concussion.
With his second goal Thursday, center Tage Thompson became one of six Sabres who have scored 38 or more goals in the team’s first 60 games.
He joined Danny Gare (1979-80), Pat LaFontaine (1992-93), Rick Martin (1971-72, 1973-74), Alexander Mogilny (1992-93) and Gilbert Perreault (1977-78).
Thompson, 25, completed his hat trick in the third period against the Lightning, giving him a career-high 39 goals.
He has recorded three or more points in 10 games this season, the highest total since LaFontaine had 11 outings with three or more points in 1995-96.