Jan. 19 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Tampa Times Forum
Time: 7:00 pm
TV: Comcast Sports Network
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 1:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Adam Oates at 3:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8 in 2011-12)
Tampa Bay Lightning (38-36-8 in 2011-12)
The Capitals take to the road for their first game of the 2012-13 regular season, a Saturday night match with the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa.
Saturday’s game marks the NHL head coaching debut of Adam Oates, who was hired as the new Washington bench boss last June. Oates started his NHL coaching career in Tampa as an assistant coach with the Lightning in 2009-10. He spent the last two seasons as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils. The Caps’ next road game is in New Jersey next Friday night.
Washington’s roster has a few new faces since the end of last season, most notably in veteran playmaking center Mike Ribeiro, obtained from Dallas in a draft day deal last summer. Left wing Wojtek Wolski, right wings Joey Crabb and Eric Fehr and defenseman Jack Hillen round out the list of newcomers on the 2012-13 roster.
Each of those additions is expected to make a difference, but when it’s all said and done, it’s quite likely Oates himself who could have the greatest impact on this team this season. The team’s core players – Alex Oveckin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Brooks Laich – have all seen their offensive numbers dwindle over the past two seasons.
Injuries have played a part in the declines of Backstrom and Green, but it’s hoped that Oates’ style of play – and better health – can help rejuvenate the careers of the Caps’ top four players and propel the team to a sixth straight berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Last season, Oates helped coach the Devils to the Stanley Cup final against Los Angeles. He’d like the Caps to play a style similar to that of the Devils and the Kings.
“You look at the two teams in the finals,” says Oates of the 2012 playoffs, “they were both in-your-face teams, all over the ice, in all three zones. I consider myself that kind of coach. There is a correct way to play. I don’t believe in sitting back. We have a lot of talented players here. I want our players to go north. I want us to be in the face of the other team. But we’ve also got to protect our goalie and our defense. We’ve got to play good defense. Offense comes from defense, for sure.”
Oates spent the last six days showing his players – on the ice with drills and off the ice with video – how he believes the game should be played.
“The coaching in the league, the players in the league and the talent level, there is no space out there in the league nowadays,” Oates observes. “But it’s not the trap necessarily. You have to make the players believe that it’s hard. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night. There are only certain ways you can play. We’re going to try to figure out any angle that we can to get more offense, but without sacrificing defense.”
One of Oates’ key tasks will be to try to return Ovechkin’s game to the elite level at which it resided before the last two seasons. Increased ice time will play a part in that plan, as will some tweaks to the way the team operates on the power play. Oates will do what he can, but some of the onus has to be on Ovechkin, too.
“Alex is obviously the marquee guy on this team,” says Oates. “But he and I are going to have an understanding that he’s got to play the game the same way the rest of the team is going to play. In that respect, nobody is more important than the team. But he will also know that I have his back. We will come to an understanding and I hope to get the best out of Alex Ovechkin. He’s going to lead us to the promised land.”
Twenty-three-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby will get the nod in net for Saturday night’s opener. Holtby helped the Caps to within a game of the Eastern Conference final last spring, posting a remarkable 1.95 GAA and a .934 save pct. in 14 starts in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After coming within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2010-11 – Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher’s first season behind the bench – the Lightning fell out of the playoffs last season, finishing in a tie for 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Spotty goaltending and defense and lackluster special teams play combined to account for Tampa Bay’s tumble in the standings. Bolts general manager Steve Yzerman was proactive in addressing those issues over the off-season, dealing for promising young goaltender Anders Lindback and also adding defensemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo.
Tampa Bay has had no trouble filling the net of late; they’ve finished among the league’s top 10 in each of the last two seasons. But the Lightning allowed 278 goals last season, dead last in the NHL by a wide margin and 34 more than it surrendered a season earlier.
The Lightning employed four different goaltenders in 2011-12, with veterans Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson accounting for 75 of the 82 starts. Garon returns in a back-up role behind Lindback, who was a rookie with the Predators last season.
In limited duty as Pekka Rinne’s understudy, Lindback got into just 16 games (10 starts) last season. He finished up at 5-8 with 2.42 GAA and a .912 save pct. That represents the sum total of the 24-year-old’s NHL experience. The Lightning surrendered two second-round NHL Draft choices (in 2012) and a third-round pick (in 2013) in order to pry Lindback from the Preds last June. Now, the Lightning will cast their goaltending lot with the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Swede for the upcoming season.
In moving from the 42-year-old Roloson to the 24-year-old Lindback, the Bolts instantly got a lot younger and bigger in goal. They also got a lot less experienced. How Lindback performs will go a long way toward Tampa Bay’s fortunes in the 2012-13 Southeast Division standings. Garon is still around; he is expected to serve as Lindback’s understudy.
Yzerman added a pair of experienced hands on defense to help curb the Lightning’s goals against. Carle and Salo signed on as free agents, Carle coming from Philadelphia and Salo from Vancouver. Carle will be paired with veteran Eric Brewer and Salo will skate alongside fellow Swede Victor Hedman.
Additionally, the Lightning added depth to its forward corps in obtaining Benoit Pouliot from Boston and B.J. Crombeen from St. Louis.
The Lightning’s attack is still based largely on the contributions of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Stamkos became just the second player in the last 15 years to hit the 60-goal plateau in 2011-12, and St. Louis is a sublime setup man who is frequently on the feeding end of those Stamkos strikes. Ryan Malone fills out the top trio, skating on the left side.
At the start of the season, rookie Cory Conacher will be given an opportunity to skate in the team’s top six after a stellar first season as a pro with AHL Norfolk in 2011-12. Last season, Conacher – who played his collegiate hockey at Canisius – scored 39 goals and totaled 80 points for the Calder Cup champion Admirals. Conacher became just the fourth rookie in AHL history to win the league’s MVP award in 2011-12. He’ll play the left side on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell.
Aside from Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Purcell and Malone, no other Lightning forwards managed as many as 20 points last season. The Bolts hope Conacher and Pouliot can help add some depth and dimension to the team’s attack this season.