Stafford’s Hat Trick Helps Sabres Stun Bolts

The Buffalo Sabres rallied back after nearly 40 minutes of “so-so” play to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-4 tonight at St. Pete Times Forum in southern Florida, scoring six goals in 15:17. The streak was the quickest since they did it in 14:51 on March 19, 2008, also against the Lightning.

Drew Stafford earned his fifth career hat trick and third of the season, Thomas Vanek netted two, and Jordan Leopold and Tim Connolly both scored one apiece for Buffalo. Rookie Tyler Ennis earned two assists, as did Leopold.

What brought on this obvious change in game play for the Sabres? What did head-coach Lindy Ruff have to do in order for the team to come back the phenomenal way that they did?

“[It’s a] matter of executing in the neutral zone better,” Stafford said. “[We] changed the system, and gained momentum off Leopold’s goal.”

Despite their loss, the Lightning came out strong at home and earned the first goal of the contest 6:36 into the opening period. After the puck was given away by the visiting team at the Buffalo blueline, Vinny Lecavalier slid it right to Sean Bergenheim. The forward then ripped his ninth of the season short side high past Ryan Miller to give the Lightning the 1-0 lead. Lecavalier’s assist marks the 430th of his NHL career and his first of three points in tonight’s game.

Coming off a three-point night against Toronto on Saturday, Stafford netted his first tally of the evening with less than five minutes remaining in the first, his 18th of the year. After Tampa Bay turned over the puck on neutral ice, Leopold picked it up and slithered around the Tampa Bay defense. The Sabres defenseman then dished it to Stafford, who wristed a shot that bounced off Lightning rearguard Victor Hedman and behind former Buffalo netminder Dwayne Roloson off the far goalpost.

If Hedman was feeling any guilt about tipping Stafford’s goal past his own goaltender in the first 20 minutes, it went away as soon as he gave Tampa Bay the lead once again. After breaking up some plays in his own zone, Hedman gained possession of the puck and showed the Buffalo blueliners who was boss, positioning himself perfectly to the left side of Miller and setting up Lecavalier on the right. Lecavalier connected with Hedman to make the score 2-1 nearly five minutes into the middle stanza, giving him a multiple-point game.

As the second period went on, it became clear the the Sabres were falling asleep, especially when Bergenheim put the Lightning on the board for the second time tonight. After winning the draw, Ryan Malone flew down the ice straight for Miller and let one go. Bergenheim was there to grab the rebound and pop one over a sprawled Miller’s right leg, giving the 27-year-old double-digit goals this season.

With the clock ticking down in the second, the Sabres started waking up and brought themselves back within a single goal, thanks to Vanek. After Mike Weber kept the Tampa Bay focus on himself after carrying the puck into the Lightning zone, Vanek lurked in the left circle waiting for it. Weber swiftly delivered, and Vanek beat Roloson stick side for his 21st goal of the season.

Buffalo evened the score at 3-3 with a questionable goal by Leopold, the obvious climax of the entire matchup. At the time of the blueliner’s 11th tally, Stafford was knocked down in front of Roloson’s net, bumping Roloson and leaving him to look up from his back on the ice in the process. The Lighting netminder was blinded from Leopold’s blast from the point, allowing the puck to go in and the Sabres to increase their chances of victory with 16:34 left to play in the game.

Leopold’s goal stunned the Lightning. Following the tally, the Sabres scored four consecutive goals in a span of 3:13. Connolly earned the game-winner at 10:14, while Vanek netted his second of the game just 47 seconds later and Stafford completed his hat trick with his goals at 11:56 and 13:27, respectively.

This is the Buffalo Sabres club that deserves to see the 2010-11 playoffs, a team that plays as though they want to be there.

First, at the midway point of the final frame, Tampa Bay turned the puck over to Ennis, after Stafford forced a bad pass on the Lightning’s behalf. Instantly Ennis connected with Connolly, who buried the puck past Roloson with a bang for his eighth this year. Less than a minute later, Vanek waited patiently for Cody McCormick’s pass from deep in the zone, then stunned Roloson for his team-leading 22nd goal.

With the goals, Stafford pulls within one goal of Vanek for the team lead. His 15 goals since December 15th are the third most in the league, right behind Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler (19) and Tampa’s Steven Stamkos (16).

“[I’ve been] getting more shots, trying to get more pucks on net, and they’ve been going in for me,” said Stafford.

Stafford and the rest of the Sabres will travel a few miles south to face the Panthers on Thursday.

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