Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Johan Holmqvist, right, of Sweden, makes a glove save as Buffalo Sabres center Paul Gaustad screened the shot during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y. on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Don Heupel
BUFFALO, N.Y. - After vowing the Buffalo Sabres would make the playoffs, Thomas Vanek backed it up with a clutch performance.
Vanek scored three consecutive goals, including the winner 2:25 into overtime, in rallying the Sabres to a 4-3 win over the stunned Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.
"We need points and we got two points, that's the most important part," said Vanek. "It's good to stop the losing streak at two and hopefully putting a streak the other way."
Vanek was the star three days after he all but guaranteed the Sabres would make the playoffs following a dreadful weekend in which Buffalo lost back-to-back games: 4-1 against Pittsburgh on Sunday and 5-1 to the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Buffalo improved to 9-2-2 in its past 13 games and into a three-way tie with Boston and Philadelphia for seventh in the Eastern Conference.
"It feels great," said Vanek, who has scored 12 goals - including four game-winners - in 11 games after he managed just 13 in his first 50 of the season. "It's finally coming and hopefully I can stay on my game from here on out."
Vanek scored twice in a span of 36 seconds, forcing overtime when he stuffed in Tim Connolly's feed with 1:45 left in regulation.
Not done yet, Vanek capped a nifty tic-tac-toe play in overtime with Tampa Bay's Dan Boyle in the penalty box for hooking.
Jason Pominville started the play from the left point by feeding Jaroslav Spacek in the right circle. Spacek then immediately sent a pass through the crease to Vanek, who stuffed it inside the left post.
Derek Roy had a goal and assist while Connolly had three assists for Buffalo, which improved to 10-1 in its past 11 meetings against the Lightning.
Brad Richards, Vaclav Prospal and Chris Gratton scored for the Lightning, who fell to 4-1-2 in their past six, and remain in last place in the East.
The loss incensed Lightning coach John Tortorella, who erupted briefly in the team's locker room with reporters present. "You better get it figured out, because I'm not going to be around it," Tortorella yelled.
The coach was a little more subdued a few minutes later when meeting with reporters outside the locker room.
"We got paralyzed, and to me it's mental toughness. And it's coming from our top people," Tortorella said.
The loss spoiled a strong outing by goaltender Johan Holmqvist, who stopped a season-high 42 shots, including the first 31 he faced.
Tortorella praised Holmqvist's performance and said the rest of the team let him down.
"We didn't play for the guy," Tortorella said. "He kept us in there, gave us a chance, and we got squat from main people. It's inexcusable. And that's why we sit where we sit."
Tampa Bay appeared in control when Prospal, parked in the slot, backhanded in a rebound with 6:48 remaining.
The Sabres responded, finally rediscovering an offence that had mustered three goals in its previous three games.
"Well, if you look at the last few games, it felt like we weren't going to score again," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
His mood changed after watching the Sabres score four times in less than a 20-minute span.
"When you get on a roll, you feel like it's going to continue," Ruff said.
Notes: Sabres GM Darcy Regier said his focus is still on signing all-star D Brian Campbell, who's in the final year of his contract. Regier said the two sides have exchanged offers and continue to talk, but he wouldn't discuss whether the Sabres would trade Campbell if a deal isn't reached before the NHL trade deadline on Tuesday. ... Lightning D Brad Lukowich will miss three to four weeks, requiring surgery to repair a sports hernia. He was placed on injured reserve earlier in the day retroactive to Feb. 9. ... The Sabres overcame a two-goal deficit to win for the first time since Oct. 27, when they beat the Lightning 4-3 in overtime at Tampa Bay. Vanek also scored the winner that game.