As the calendar flips from 2019 to 2020, the Tampa Bay Lightning are starting to put together their best hockey of the season.
The Lightning extended their win streak to a season-long four games on New Year's Eve, rallying from a 4-1 deficit to score five unanswered goals in a 6-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo. In the process, the Bolts completed the regular season sweep, going 4-0-0 over the Sabres, the second time in franchise history they've swept the regular season series from the Sabres.
The Lightning have now won 12 straight against Atlantic Division opponents. Their win combined with Florida's loss to Columbus Tuesday has the Bolts in third place in the division and a playoff spot as we head into 2020.
Here's how the Lightning continued to climb following the win in Buffalo, the Bolts seventh in a row over the Sabres.
Video: TBL@BUF: Killorn puts Lightning ahead with close shot
1. AN UNLIKELY STORY
Raise your hand if you had Alex Killorn sharing the lead for goals on the Lightning on the final day of 2019.
(Put it down, we don't believe you).
But Killorn is right there, tied with Brayden Point with 15 goals for most on the Lightning after netting a pair in Tampa Bay's 6-4 come-from-behind win over Buffalo, including the game-winner with 11:52 to go.
Killorn already is approaching his career high for goals in a season, that coming in 2016-17 when he registered 19. And we're not even halfway through the season.
Killorn scored at pivotal moments in Buffalo.
With the Lightning trailing 4-1 having just watched Jack Eichel dance through their power play on his way to a spectacular shorthanded goal that sent the crowd into a frenzy and the Sabres smelling a rout, Killorn gave the Bolts a lifeline four minutes later on another power play, slamming home the rebound from Brayden Point's shot from the slot that hit the post but bounced right to Killorn net front.
That power-play goal, Killorn's seventh of the season with the man-advantage, ignited the Lightning's five-goal onslaught.
With the score tied 4-4 nearing the midpoint of the final frame, Killorn struck again, this time playing with a new pair of linemates in Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette. Maroon took possession of the puck down low and fed Killorn in front for a one-timer past Linus Ullmark to give the Lightning their first lead. The Bolts would dominate the final period, scoring three times and holding the Sabres to nothing to close out the victory.
"At that point I was playing with Patty and Paquette and I know what they bring," Killorn said. "They make a lot of plays around the net whereas other lines like to bring it up to the D. With that line, it's more we're going to bang one home. I was lucky I got loose from whoever the D was in front of the net. I kind of just pushed off and Patty made a great pass to me."
Killorn now has six goals over his last six games. For a player who's consistently put up anywhere from 14 to 19 goals over his six full seasons in the NHL, the 30 year old is on pace to shatter that number in 2019-20.
Video: TBL@BUF: Killorn scores twice as Lightning rally
2. SURGING BEHIND SERGEY
The spark that got the Lightning out of their funk in Buffalo wasn't a spectacular goal or a 10-bell save from Andrei Vasilevskiy.
It was a fight from an unlikely source in Mikhail Sergachev.
Sergachev had never been in a fight during his NHL career. But in the second period with tempers flaring between both teams, stemming from earlier meetings between the two teams this season, Sergachev delivered a hard but clean hit to Jack Eichel. Jack McCabe took exception and engaged Sergachev, who was a willing participant.
After both delivered wild haymakers, Sergachev took control of the fight, connecting with a couple powerful hooks and sending McCabe down to the ice in a heap with Sergachev falling right on top.
As the two were separated, Sergachev started gesturing and barking at the crowd to let them know about the beat down he just delivered. The Lightning bench noticed too.
"Sergey changed it today," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Big hit and stood up and had a real good fight. That got the whole bench going. Even though they scored the next goal, we were still jacked up about that. I think that turned around our game. We were skating better. We were not turning pucks over. We were going and forcing them to turn the puck over. I think Sergey was a big part of that."
As Hedman alluded to, the Sabres scored shorthanded on the ensuing Lightning power play from the Sergachev-McCabe bout, a goal that seemed to have the momentum squarely on Buffalo's side. The Lightning, however, still had Sergachev's inspired fisticuffs on their mind and went back to work getting into the game. The Bolts scored twice over the final 10 minutes of the second period, including a critical goal from Tyler Johnson with 3:05 left, to cut the deficit to a goal heading into the second intermission.
"I thought the big goal was Johnson's," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's a big difference coming back to the room only one down instead of two.
Tampa Bay completely took the game over in the third period to leave Buffalo with its fourth straight win.
"I think just emotionally we weren't really in the game for some reason, it seems like we've had really bad starts," Killorn said. "I think looking at Sergachev's fight, even though they scored right after, kind of galvanized the group. We end up getting a goal at the end of the period, that gives us a little bit of hope. And then the third period, we really took over."
Video: TBL@BUF: Shattenkirk scores off defender in the 3rd
3. A PERFECT PENALTY KILL
For a unit that was much maligned over the first month of the season, the Lightning penalty kill has quietly developed into a pretty solid group.
The penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4 in Buffalo, and the work the unit did down the stretch killing off two key power plays while holding onto a one-goal lead helped preserve the win.
The Sabres were gifted an opportunity to tie the game with 7:53 to go when Sergachev played the puck over the glass from his own end for a delay of game call. Buffalo had a number of really good looks on the ensuing power play. It was the Sabres best power play of the night.
But the Lightning survived.
Victor Olofsson had three chances on right circle one-timers but missed the net wide right on all three. Later, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who wasn't his sharpest early on but settled in to make some fantastic saves throughout the night for his 17th win of the season, stopped a pair of Marcus Johansson shots from in close with his left leg pad to keep the Bolts in front.
With the penalty to Sergachev nearly over, Nikita Kucherov was whistled for a dubious cross-checking penalty, sending the Lightning down two men for 8 seconds and giving Buffalo more power play time.
Again, the Lightning persevered.
The Bolts won the draw to get out of the brief 5-on-3. Then they benefited from a pair of blocked shots by Sergachev, the last one leaving him wobbled and heading down the tunnel to the locker room for the rest of the game.
The Russian defenseman sacrificed his body to help the Lightning preserve the win.
"He's really, really grown in this League, and he's just becoming a rock back there for us," Cooper said. "He made some big plays, especially those blocked shots at the end there."
As the Lightning enter 2020, their penalty kill ranks tied for 16th in the NHL, successfully killing off 80.9 percent of its opportunities. That's a far cry from where the unit ranked at the end of October. If that group can continue progressing at the rate it has over the last two months, the penalty kill should be a strength of the team down the stretch.