RALEIGH, N.C. — The Buffalo Sabres had a late-night flight home. And who was in Buffalo waiting for them to play Saturday night in KeyBank Center?
The hottest team in the NHL. Maybe the hottest team in a decade or more. Maybe a team that could be the best in the regular season of all-time.
The Tampa Bay Lightning head into Saturday night's game with a 34-8-2 record and entered Friday with a remarkable 10-point lead over Calgary in the Presidents' Trophy standings. The Bolts are 17-1-1 in their last 19 games, a stretch that started with their 5-4 win over the Sabres on Nov. 29 in Amalie Arena.
That victory, of course, ended Buffalo's 10-game winning streak and moved the Lightning one point ahead of the Sabres in the standings. How much have things changed since then? Tampa Bay entered Friday 18 points ahead of Buffalo.
Tampa Bay is on pace for a 130-point season, which would be two shy of the NHL record of 132 set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. The Lightning are on pace for 63 wins, which would break the league mark of 62 set by Detroit during a 131-point season in 1995-96.
The Bolts lead the league in wins, points (70), regulation/OT wins (31), points percentage (.795), goals (180), goals per game (4.09), goal differential (plus-58), power-play percentage (30.0), home wins (19, on a 19-4 record), home points (38), home goals (101), home goal differential (plus-42) and home points percentage (.826). Whew.
The Tampa Bay power play is actually better on the road, connecting at 34.3 percent (Pittsburgh leads at 34.6 percent).
Individual numbers are equally astounding.
Winger Nikita Kucherov has roared into the NHL lead in both assists (51) and points (72). The Lightning went 13-0-1 in December and Kucherov averaged 2.15 points per game with nine goals and 30 points in the 14 games. Kucherov has eight goals and 19 points in 20 career games against Buffalo.
Center Brayden Point leads the team with 28 goals, four off the NHL lead, and entered Friday tied for sixth in scoring with 60 points. Steven Stamkos is having another big year with 23 goals and 49 points.
The Sabres have had some success against Tampa in recent games, going 3-2 in the last five and splitting two meetings this year. Buffalo's 2-1 home victory on Nov. 13 was win No. 3 in its big streak. Prior to those five games, the Sabres had been just 1-11-1 against Tampa Bay.
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To activate Jack Eichel off injured reserve Friday, the Sabres returned winger C.J. Smith to Rochester. Smith played four games and recorded one point, getting his first NHL goal in Tuesday's win over New Jersey.
Smith made his season debut on New Year's Eve against the New York Islanders, collecting three shots on goal. Coach Phil Housley said he liked Smith's game Jan. 3 against Florida but that the 24-year-old took a step back in last Saturday's 2-1 loss in Boston, like most of the team did.
"I liked his last game against Jersey. That's the way he's got to play moving forward," Housley said. "Just using his feet, creating. He has a knack of finding the open man in the offensive zone and just getting to the net."
Smith has 13 goals and 29 points in 33 games for the Amerks this season. He leads Rochester forwards in goals and points.