The Tampa Bay Lightning closed out a highly-successful 2014 calendar year with a victory in Buffalo, the fourth in a row for the Bolts.
The win gives Tampa Bay 52 points heading into 2015, the most in the Eastern Conference and tied with Chicago for second most in the NHL behind Anaheim (54). The Lightning lead the NHL in regulation/overtime victories (22) and are the league's highest scoring team (126 goals).
With 39 games complete, the Bolts are nearing the midway point of the regular season, and the team has positioned itself perfectly to earn its eighth postseason bid in 22 seasons and second straight.
How did last night's game help the Lightning get a step closer to the playoffs? Here are a few things we learned about the Bolts during their 5-1 rout of the Sabres.
1. Nesterov's debut underscores organizational depth
With Radko Gudas suffering a lower-body injury and unable to go against Buffalo and Jason Garrison still not ready to come back from an undisclosed ailment that has forced him to miss the last four games, the Lightning reached down into the AHL ranks to recall Nikita Nesterov to bolster the blue line on Wednesday.
Nesterov made his NHL debut in Buffalo and was solid throughout his 15:02 time on ice.
"He plays a pros game," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of the 21-year-old Russian defenseman. "We saw that in camp, and he's been doing that in the minors. That's why we called him up because we thought he'd be a seamless fit, and he was."
Nesterov's biggest contribution came midway through the second period with the game deadlocked 1-1. Buffalo had a clear 2-on-1 with only Nesterov defending, and the former fifth round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft slid down onto the ice to break up the attack with a well-timed poke check.
Ondrej Palat scored the game-winning goal later in the second, and, from there, the rout was on.
Nesterov's call-up might have been a surprise to some. Luke Witkowski figured to be the first defenseman on the Bolts' list after shining for the Lightning in training camp. Witkowski was one of the last players sent to Syracuse when the team trimmed its camp roster, and he received a spot call-up earlier this season. J.P. Cote had also been playing well for the Crunch after skating in 19 games with the Bolts last season.
But the fact it was Nesterov who was selected shows the faith the Lightning have in all their players throughout the organization. And Nesterov's play gives the Bolts reassurance they can dip into the minor leagues when needed and not miss a beat.
2. Vasy gains much-needed experience
When rookie goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was recalled from Syracuse on Tuesday for the second time this season, fans began to speculate why.
Was Ben Bishop injured again?
Are the Lightning trading Evgeni Nabokov?
The simple answer to both questions? No.
Vasilevskiy's call-up was more an issue of logistics than anything else. After Vasilevskiy proved he could play and star in the NHL during his first three games, Cooper said he needed to get the 6-foot-3 Russian more playing time in the league.
Wednesday's game offered the perfect opportunity. Vasilevskiy was just 2.5 hours away by car in Syracuse and could easily get to Buffalo in time for the game. The Sabres were one of the weaker teams in the league with just 31 points through 37 games, next-to-last in the Eastern Conference. And Bishop needed a day off after two straight solid starts upon his return from a lower-body injury.
Vasilevskiy was again at his best. He wasn't asked to do much, making just 10 saves on 11 shots, but his solid play in net anchored the Bolts' 5-1 win.
Expect to see more movement of Vasilevskiy between Syracuse and Tampa Bay throughout the season. The rookie needs games, and whether they're in the AHL or the NHL, the Bolts will be looking to provide him with as much work as he can handle.
3. 2014 was a banner year for the Lightning
With the win in Buffalo, the Lightning put a bow on a tremendous year for the franchise.
In 82 regular season games, the Bolts compiled a record of 47-26-9. The Lightning advanced to the playoffs for just the seventh time in team history before falling to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
The franchise said goodbye to one superstar – Marty St. Louis – and turned the team over to another, naming Steven Stamkos the 10th captain in Bolts history.
Tampa Bay added veteran pieces – Brian Boyle, Brenden Morrow, Anton Stralman, Garrison and Nabokov – in the offseason to pair with a bevy of talented young forwards with a nose for scoring goals.
The results have the Lightning in first place in the East heading into 2015.
Here's hoping the new year is even more prosperous for the Bolts.