November 11 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM Pre-Game: Pre-Cap pre-game podcast on www.washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Tampa Bay Lightning (8-4-2)
Washington Capitals (11-4-0)
This is the 12th season of the Southeast Division’s existence, and only once in those previous 11 campaigns have the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning been separated by fewer than 16 points in the standings at season’s end. That was in 2002-03 when the Lightning nipped the Caps by a point for the division crown, then ousted Washington in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In five of the previous 11 seasons, Tampa Bay and Washington have been separated by 37 or more standings points after 82 games. The average annual point difference between the two teams is 29 over the past 11 seasons.
We’re betting the under for 2010-11.
Tampa Bay is in the midst of a resurgence on and off the ice, and the Bolts hit the District for the first of their three visits this season on Thursday. The Capitals will be looking to extend their winning streak to six straight games.
"It will be good," says Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz of the possibility of a budding rivarly between Washington and the Bolts. "It seems like the past couple years we’ve had a little bit of an easy time in our division but now teams like Tampa and Atlanta are putting together good teams and competitive teams that are going to make it hard for the division lead this year."
Washington’s current five-game winning streak is the 10th streak of five or more wins the team has put together since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Caps’ bench on Nov. 22, 2007. Prior to that, the Caps had experienced a franchise-record drought of more than seven years (468 games) without winning as many as five games in a row. It was also the longest run of winning streak futility in the league at the time.
Washington ran its current streak to five with Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Rangers in New York. The Blueshirts became the Capitals’ ninth different Eastern Conference victim this season, and now Washington will be looking to add the Lightning to that list as it faces Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay for the first time.
Last season, the Caps averaged a gaudy 3.82 goals per game. That figure was by far the best in the league. After a comparatively sluggish offensive start in 2010-11, the Caps are at 3.4 goals per game through the campaign’s first 15 contests. Again, that’s the top figure in the league.
Defensively, the Caps have taken some steps forward. After finishing 16th in the circuit with an average of 2.77 goals allowed per game and 18th with an average of 30.9 shots permitted per contest, the Capitals have tightened up in their own end.
Fifteen games into last season, the Caps had six games in which they surrendered four or more goals. Thus far this season, they’ve allowed four or more goals only three times. With an average of 2.47 goals allowed per game in 2010-11, the Capitals rank ninth. Washington has shaved its average shots allowed to 27.9 per game, good for seventh in the NHL.
The Capitals’ power play is 10th in the NHL with a 20.3% success rate. Washington has killed off 85.9% of the opposition’s manpower advantage chances, good for ninth in the league. The Caps are sitting squarely at 50% in face-off success for the season, standing 16th in the circuit in that category.
In their 4-0 Tuesday night whitewashing of the Toronto Maple Leafs on home ice, the Bolts were without top six forward Steve Downie, who was sidelined with an upper body injury. In Downie’s absence, the Lightning went with seven defensemen.
Veteran Tampa Bay forward Simon Gagne is also on the sidelines with a neck injury.
In Tuesday’s Tampa Bay triumph over the Leafs, lethal Lightning weapon Steven Stamkos gave goaltender Dan Ellis (28 saves) all the offense he would need with a trademark one-timer from the left dot on a power play midway through the first. Tampa Bay added two more in the first and cruised to victory with Stamkos adding another tally – his 13th of the season – later in the game.
Although Tampa Bay also features veteran Caps killers Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, Stamkos has rapidly established himself as one of the game’s premier scoring threats. Perhaps the best pure shooter in the league, Stamkos shared the Maurice Richard Trophy with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby as a sophomore last season.
Over the off-season, the Lightning brought in legendary former Red Wing and Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman to serve as the team’s GM. In turn, Yzerman hired Guy Boucher to take over as team’s bench boss.
On the ice, the Lightning brought in Ellis, veteran blueliner Pavel Kubina and underrated center Dominic Moore. Ellis has outplayed incumbent goaltender Mike Smith. Kubina, who was a 1996 Tampa Bay draft choice, has settled in as the team’s No. 2 defenseman behind sophomore Victor Hedman. Moore has five goals in nine games this season. He scored on Tuesday after missing five straight games with a groin injury.
"They made a few changes," says Schultz, "a few key acquisitions over the summer. It seems to me they are playing at a very high tempo, kind of in-your-face high tempo, fast-skating type game. It will be a little different than maybe what we’ve seen in the past."
Having just returned from a four-game road trip, the Lightning went home for Tuesday’s tilt with Toronto. The homestand was short-lived.
Beginning with Thursday’s visit to Washington, the Lightning plays 14 of its next 23 games on the road. With a schedule that heavily slanted with road contests, you would expect it to turn around with a long home spell at some point.
Well, yes. The Lightning will spend an entire month at home, playing an unheard of 12 straight games at home from Jan. 23 through Feb. 25. That stretch includes a visit from the Capitals on Feb. 4.
The Lightning had been leading the league in goals per game, but it has slipped to sixth in the circuit at 3.07 goals per game. Tampa Bay is 15th in the league in goals against at 2.79.
Led by Stamkos’ six power play goals – tops in the league – the Bolts’ power play is sixth in the league with a 23.7% success rate. Tampa Bay is third in the league with a 90.6% kill rate, and the Lightning is 10th in the circuit with a 51.5% face-off win rate.