March 12 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Versus Radio: 820AM, 1500AM, 106.7 FM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage Pre-Game show at 6:30 p.m., both on www.washingtoncaps.com
Tampa Bay Lightning (27-27-12)
Washington Capitals (45-13-9)
Last Thursday night, the Capitals opened up a season-long five-game homestand with a 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. On Friday, the Lightning comes to town again to close out Washington’s homestand. It’s the final visit to the District this season for the Bolts.
By virtue of Thursday night’s loss by the Atlanta Thrashers in Columbus, the Capitals have become the first team to win three straight Southeast Division crowns. With exactly a month remaining in the regular season, the Caps will now continue their pursuit of the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Washington currently holds a 14-point bulge over second place Pittsburgh. Both teams have 15 games remaining, including two head-to-head tilts.
Washington comes into Friday’s game on the heels of a 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night. The Capitals are 3-0-1 during the homestand and they are now 26-3-4 on Verizon Center ice this season. The Caps are 19-1-1 in their last 21 home games. Washington is 21-2-3 since a brief three-game losing streak at the turn of the calendar, its longest skid this season.
This is Washington’s 35th season in the NHL, and it is just the sixth time the Caps have amassed as many as 45 wins in a season. With 15 games remaining, the Capitals are a good bet to surpass the club record of 50 victories, set in 1985-86 and matched last season.
With a net of three additional healthy bodies brought in at last week’s NHL trade deadline, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau has rotated players in and out of the lineup as healthy scratches, including players who would – under normal circumstances – be extremely unlikely to get that designation.
Fifteen different skaters have sat out at least one of Washington’s five games since the NHL resumed play after the Olympic break, and only nine players have played all five of those contests.
Left wing Tomas Fleischmann and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn were among those who sat out Monday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars. Both players were instrumental in Wednesday’s win over Carolina.
Fleischmann drew the penalties that led to the first two of Washington’s four power play goals on the night, and he scored the game-winning goal in overtime for the second time in his NHL career. Morrisonn played 18:59 (including 4:55 while the Caps were shorthanded) and recorded two blocked shots and a team-high seven hits.
Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera sat out Wednesday’s win against the Hurricanes. Fehr has 17 goals this season; Chimera has 13. Among the likely scratches for Friday’s game with the Lightning are forwards Eric Belanger and Mike Knuble and defenseman John Carlson.
Belanger set up Fleischmann’s game-winner on Wednesday. Knuble is fourth on the team with 25 goals. And according to Boudreau, the 20-year-old Carlson might have been the Caps’ best blueliner on Wednesday against the Canes.
“It’s a luxury because some guys can get some rest,” says Boudreau of his unique personnel surplus. “There are a lot of games; 20 games in 40 nights [after] the Olympics. But at the same time, it’s a coach’s nightmare because we have to sit five guys that don’t deserve to be sat.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all to do. It can be done as long as we continue to win. If we start losing, that will change in a heartbeat. It’s easy to say [we’re] getting everybody involved, but I think the bottom line is everybody is committed on this team to winning. Everybody is willing to pay the price to win.
“Nobody is going to like sitting out. But sometimes it is what it is and you’ve got to bide your time and when you get in, you’ve got to play so well that you’re not able to be taken out of the lineup.”
The Capitals have won seven straight games over the Lightning on Verizon Center ice. The last time the Bolts won in the District was on Nov. 10, 2007. That was less than two weeks before Boudreau took over the coaching reins from Glen Hanlon. Washington is 12-3-2 in its last 17 home games against the Lightning.
For the Lightning, Friday’s game is the second of back-to-back games. The Bolts dropped a 4-3 overtime decision in Toronto on Thursday.
The Lightning has now lost seven of its last eight games, and it has surrendered five or more goals in six of those seven losses. Tampa Bay’s bid for a playoff berth is spiraling downward; the Lightning currently stands 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, six points behind eighth-place Boston for the final postseason berth with just 16 games to go.
After winning four straight games at the start of February, Tampa Bay went into a tailspin from which they’ve been unable to emerge. Mired in a 1-6-1 slump at the worst possible time, the Bolts have been battered for 4.75 goals against per game during that span.
As the Tampa Bay defense withers, the team’s attack keeps clicking. The Lightning has averaged 3.5 goals per game over the last eight games. During the regular season, only Washington (3.88 goals per game) has scored at a higher rate. For the entirety of the season, the Lightning stands 16th in the league with an average of 2.67 goals per game.
Sophomore center Steven Stamkos has taken the circuit by storm this season. He has 42 goals; only Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have scored more. Stamkos’ 18-game scoring streak (17 goals, 16 assists) is a franchise record. He also leads the NHL with 18 power-play goals.
Stamkos has 17 goals in his last 17 games. He has also scored in seven straight games, the longest streak for any NHL player in 2009-10 and the second longest in the Lightning’s franchise history.
With just nine road wins in 34 games this season, the Lightning is tied for the fewest road triumphs in the Eastern Conference. The Bolts head back to Tampa Bay for a four-game homestand after Friday’s game, but seven of the Lightning’s next nine games will come against teams currently among the top eight in their respective conferences.