Both the Lightning and Sabres picked up huge Game 3 wins tonight with each posting a 3-2 victory to go up 2-1 in their respective best-of-seven First Round series.
First, it was the Bolts notching their second straight win over the Devils by virtue of a Vinny Prospal redirect of a Vinny Lecavalier shot with 6:29 left in the third to pull out a home win before over 20,000 at St. Pete Times Forum.
It was a disheartening defeat for New Jersey because after a sluggish first 20, they dictated much of the play and seemed in good position to steal home ice back. Especially when they got a fortuitous bounce for Zach Parise's fourth of the series which tied the contest at two with 15:14 to go.
But despite carrying much of the stanza in which they got 15 shots on Johan Holmqvist, they couldn't get another past the Tampa netminder who was sharp in making 30 saves to outduel Martin Brodeur (21 saves) for the second game in a row.
To Tampa's credit, they did find their game in the final part of the third and that's what led to the eventual Prospal winner. Coming off a relentless forecheck after Brodeur robbed Shane O'Brien of a sure go-ahead tally on a backdoor a minute earlier, they attacked relentlessly and finally worked the puck to Lecavalier along the right wall. The Rocket Richard winner fired and it was deflected home by Prospal for his first.
The Devils really didn't get many good chances to tie afterwards. A costly Richard Matvichuk boarding minor (his second penalty of the game) with 3:52 to play made the challenge even tougher. The defenseman had replaced a banged up Colin White.
Brodeur would make two of his best saves late to give his team a chance to tie by robbing Lecavalier and Brad Richards. The three-time Cup winner would be pulled for an extra attacker with 1:30 left. However, despite getting some attack time, they weren't able to muster the kind of opportunity which would've forced OT.
New Jersey now knows the challenge will be even tougher if they want to advance. Game 4 becomes a must win Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, for the Islanders, they also suffered a tough loss at home to Buffalo by the same margin. After a scoreless first in which both netminders stood tall in denying all 19 total shots in their path, the play opened up featuring all five goals not surprisingly.
First, Chris Drury would find Adam Mair on the doorstep to get the scoring started. A few minutes later, Thomas Vanek would sneak a wraparound just inside the right post which he felt he scored on. Only neither the refs or goal judge saw it. But after a lengthy review in Toronto, a TSN replay confirmed that the dangerous Buffalo sniper had indeed snuck the puck just inside the goal line past Rick DiPietro to put the Sabres up two.
Instead of letting the tough call get to them, the Isles came right back 1:14 later thanks to some hard work from their best two forwards tonight as Ryan Smyth and Trent Hunter combined for the Fishsticks first home playoff goal since 2002 against Toronto. Smyth outworked a Sabre in the corner and setup Hunter in front, who after a second attempt jammed the puck past Ryan Miller for his second of the series to slice the deficit in half.
A pivotal full two-man advantage called by the refs on Tom Poti (4:00 high sticking) and Marc-Andre Bergeron (slashing) would result in a Daniel Briere PP tally. After taking a Tim Connolly feed at the left circle, he had his initial shot blocked by Brendan Witt but stayed with it and roofed it home for his first to restore the two-goal margin.
To the Isles' credit again and continued resiliency, they got it back to one again thanks to a Smyth tally at the doorstep with only eight seconds remaining in the period.
But Buffalo rebounded with a strong final period outshooting the Fishsticks by a wide 17-2 margin. Only DiPietro, who was again strong in making 32 stops gave them a chance late to tie. After the refs justifiably let go of a clean defensive play by Buffalo on a Chris Campoli chance in the slot, they made a very questionable tripping call on Randy Robitaille with only 1:34 left which drew the ire of the Coliseum crowd. While it's true that his stick did trip up a Sabre, it was very tacky at that stage. The only way I could agree is that they decided it would've led directly to a scoring chance which very well might've happened.
Still though, it's one they should've let go of. Some angry fans stupidly tossed debris on the ice in protest. Good for FSNY color analyst Billy Jaffe for chastising these individuals for their overreaction. It was a tough call and I understand that. But you don't go as far as a silly few did making it more difficult for a fiercely competitive game to finish.
The Isles did pull DiPietro for an extra attacker to make it five-on-five and did a decent job on the cycle. But they never could get a shot as the Sabres ran the clock down to take back home ice and go up 2-1 in the series.
It was the fifth straight playoff defeat for the Isles on home ice. They'll need to change that recent trend starting Wednesday if they want to have a realistic chance of pulling this upset.
I do want to conclude by applauding the Isles' effort. They haven't played like an eighth seed so far. They have mixed it up and reminded me of another dangerous seed from last year which Smyth and Bergeron played for. The Oilers.
Yeah. Maybe they didn't get enough shots on Miller (20 saves) in the third. But also the puck didn't bounce for them a few times as they did have some chances. They have played the Sabres extremely tough thus far and must be encouraged.
Our Three Stars for both games:
Lightning 3 Devils 2
Third Star- John Madden (goal)
Second Star- Johan Holmqvist (30 saves)
First Star- Vincent Lecavalier (goal, assist)
Sabres 3 Islanders 2
Third Star- Henrik Tallinder (assist)
Second Star- Daniel Briere (GW goal)
First Star- Ryan Smyth (goal, assist)