If the Tampa Bay Lightning can start off all their remaining road trips with the kind of dominance they displayed in the third period of their 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night, they'll have nothing to worry about in 2015.
Except, you know, how far they go in the playoffs.
The Lightning attacked early and often and put the pressure on the Buffalo defenders before weathering an extended shift in their own end at the hands of the Sabres' top unit of Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, and Zemgus Girgensons. The Lightning did eventually strike first, taking a 1-0 lead on a long one-timer from Matt Carle set up by Ondrej Palat. But an unfortunate bounce on a Buffalo power play following a hooking call to Alex Killorn saw a puck hit Victor Hedman's stick and take a strong hop off the ice and past Andrei Vasilevskiy to send the Sabres into the first intermission tied with the Bolts 1-1 in a curiously low-event frame (Tampa led in shots, 6-4).
The game finally opened up midway through the second with teams trading rush chances. Rookie rearguard Nikita Nesterov, skating in his first NHL game, made a sliding padstack dive to deny a Buffalo 2-on-1 before Steven Stamkos hit the crossbar on the rush going the other way. However, most of Tampa Bay's attack was snuffed out by a stouter second period defense from the Sabres, as the Bolts managed just one shot on Jhonas Enroth through the first half of the second period. At the other end, Vasilevskiy had to be sharp with a handful of rush chances for the Sabres and some looks in and around the goal crease to keep the game knotted at 1-1.
As the second period dragged on, the Bolts started to turn up the offense just a bit. A just-missed breakaway from Steven Stamkos and a regrettable offsides call when Mark Barberio appeared to keep the puck in at the blue line didn't help the sputtering Lightning offense late in the period, but Ondrej Palat finally cracked the Buffalo defense on the power play, lasering a shot from inside the left circle to the top corner to give the Lightning a lead to work with heading into the final frame. Still, however, the Lightning struggled to generate a lot of shots or meaningful zone time, with the shots on goal favoring Tampa 11-10 after 40 minutes.
Even as the Lightning failed to get much going offensively at 5v5 in the first half of the third, the Sabres seemed to be content to hand out power plays; a minor penalty to Nick Deslauriers for holding put the Bolts on the man advantage and Brett Connolly capitalized with a backhand in front just as the Buffalo defender exited the box to extend the Lighnting lead to two goals. Nikita Kucherov would convert at even strength just minutes later on a loose puck in the crease following a bad-angle shot by Tyler Johnson to give the Bolts a comfortable 4-1 lead.
While the Sabres -- a startling bad puck possession team -- did a fairly good job of keeping away from the long, tiring cycle shifts in their own defensive end, they also did almost nothing to crack a Lightning blue line missing both Jason Garrison and Radko Gudas. With just over 5 minutes remaining in the third period of what had been a close game, the Sabres still had yet to record a shot on goal, and they didn't do so until 4:41 remaining, earning a bronx cheer from the crowd in Buffalo. Buffalo's ineptitude made Andrei Vasilevskiy's job exceedingly easy; in fact, the only puck that beat him all night hopped off Victor Hedman's stick and the ice before doing so.
Nikita Kucherov added another late tally, his fourth point of the night, to bring the final score to 5-1.
- The Tampa Bay Lightning scored 5 goals on the night; only one came from a player over the age of 25 (Matt Carle's first period tally). Nikita Kucherov scored a pair, Brett Connolly scored, and Ondrej Palat also found twine. The youth movement isn't just a nice supplement to the top line; on some nights, they're the entire offense. That's ok. Tampa Bay has dangerous scorers all the way down the lineup and they are, right now, a nightmare to match up with defensively.
- Don't let the appearance of success on the power play fool you; Buffalo gives up almost as many shots on the penalty kill as the Lightning (read: a lot of shots). Tampa's woes aren't solved. They just played an opponent with a kill more toothless than the Bolts' power play.
- He only faced 11 shots but credit to Andrei Vasilevskiy for keeping the Bolts in the game around the midpoint, when Buffalo managed a handful of good-to-great scoring chances both on the rush and around the crease. Good goalies makes the saves whenever the shots come, with whatever frequency. Vasilevskiy did that, the skaters finally got moving, and the result? A blowout win.
- Still, it's hard to project what Steve Yzerman and Jon Cooper will want to do with their young netminder moving forward. A lot depends on just how cautious they want to be with Ben Bishop, who swears he could have played tonight. Not every opponent will test the goalie as little as Buffalo did, and this year's playoff run likely hinges on both Bishop's health and his form heading into spring. The team needs him ready.
- This is nice, though points percentage will tell a different story:
The #TBLightning will enter 2015 atop the Eastern Conference with 52 points, one ahead of the New York Islanders.— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) January 1, 2015