January 4 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 washingtoncaps.com at 2 p.m.
Tampa Bay Lightning (23-11-5)
Washington Capitals (23-12-5)
Three nights after authoring a 3-1 win over hated rival Pittsburgh in the 2011 Winter Classic, the Washington Capitals are back in action on home ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The game concludes the first half of the 2010-11 NHL regular season for the Capitals.
The winner of Tuesday’s game at Verizon Center will end the night in the top perch in the Southeast Division standings. The Caps and Lightning head into the game with 51 points each, but Tampa Bay has a game in hand with one fewer game played than Washington thus far this season.
“It’s for first place in the Southeast,” says Caps winger Jason Chimera. “They’re playing really well right now so it’s a big test. We’ve got to get back up for it.”
By “get back up for it,” Chimera means he and his teammates have to guard against a letdown after the hype and spectacle of the Winter Classic and the HBO series “24/7” devoted to chronicling the exploits of the Caps and Penguins over the past month.
“It’s maybe an emotional letdown today because of all the media and all the hype,” says Chimera. “It seemed like a Super Bowl in there at the end of the game. But I think it will be no problem getting back up for the game [Tuesday].”
Since the Southeast Division was born in 1998-99 after some NHL gerrymandering, the average seasonal standings points difference between the Capitals and the Lightning has been a whopping 29. But the two clubs have – along with the upstart Atlanta Thrashers – been running near the top of the division standings for most of the season.
Tuesday’s game is a big one for both clubs, and arguably a bigger game than the Winter Classic was for the Capitals.
“With a win tomorrow we can jump on top in our division,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “As players it’s actually nice to have it all behind us, the Winter Classic and the HBO series. It was fun while it lasted, but it’s behind us now and now I think we can just focus on hockey. Our job should be easier moving ahead.”
In their first 10 games of the season, the Capitals were 6-4. They went 8-1-1 over the next 10 and 4-4-2 over their third set of 10 games. In their last 10, the Caps went 5-3-2.
Since putting a halt to a six-game winless (0-6-2) streak in mid-December, Washington 5-0-1 in its last six.
“It was an emotional weekend,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “But it’s like a back-to-work Monday and you get the feeling that all the holidays are over. And here we go into games 40-60, the guts of the season where teams move around in the playoff race.
“I like the fact that we’re in a race. I think it’s going to be good for us; it makes you play hard every night. The Tampa game gets your attention tomorrow and it gets your attention because it matters in the standings. I think overall it’s going to be good for us going down the line.”
With all the pomp, circumstance, hoopla and hype of the Winter Classic now in the rear view mirror, the Caps get back to business as usual.
“That’s the biggest thing right now,” says Washington winger Eric Fehr, whose two goals provided the margin of victory in the Winter Classic. “There’s no time to celebrate that win. We’ve got a huge game against Tampa Bay and we play them again in the next couple of days. We’re definitely going to have to be ready. We’re fighting for the division right now. There are some teams that are for real right now in the Southeast and we’ve got to try to beat them.”
Defensively, the Capitals have tightened up significantly in their last half dozen games. Washington has permitted just eight goals in that span, and no more than two in any one tilt. Washington has outscored its opponents by a 16-7 count at even strength in those six games.
A big part of Washington’s defensive success has been its penalty-killing outfit. The Caps have killed off 20 successive opposition power plays and 26 of 27 (96.3%) shorthanded situations in their last seven games.
Washington netminder Semyon Varlamov has also been strong of late. He was named the league’s No. 1 star for the week ending Jan. 2. Varlamov stopped 55 of 56 shots he faced last week including 32 of 33 in the Winter Classic.
During his NHL career, Varlamov is now 26-8-8 with a 2.42 GAA and a .915 save pct. He has four career shutouts, including two against the Lightning. Varlamov blanked the Bolts on 17 shots in a Nov. 26 game at Verizon Center. He is 4-1 lifetime with a 1.81 GAA and a .929 save pct. against Tampa Bay.
Since suffering a 7-0 shutout loss to the Rangers in New York on Dec. 12, Varlamov is 3-0-1 with a 1.23 GAA and a .957 save pct. He has been difficult to dent on home ice this season, posting a 1.60 GAA and a .936 save pct. in seven Verizon Center appearances (six starts) in 2010-11.
Tuesday marks Tampa Bay’s third and final visit to the District this season. The Caps took 6-3 (on Nov. 11) and 6-0 (on Nov. 26) wins from the Lightning in Tampa Bay’s first two trips to town this season.
The Lightning will have a new look in the nets this time around. While Washington was on the ice taking the two points up for grabs in the Winter Classic, Bolts general manager Steve Yzerman was putting the finishing touches on a trade that brings veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson to the Bay.
“They picked up Roloson the other day,” notes Knuble. “I think that was one area where they felt like they might be lacking a little bit. He’s a veteran guy and he’s going to be good for them. We’ll probably see him [Tuesday]. I think that’s a great move for them.”
Roloson lost the only start he’s made against Washington this season, a 2-1 decision at Verizon Center on Oct. 13. Lifetime, Roloson is 6-4-3 with a pair of shutouts, a 2.40 GAA and a .908 save pct. against Washington.
Signed by Calgary as an undrafted free agent on July 4, 1994, Roloson broke into the NHL at the age of 27 with the Flames in 1996-97. He has played in 532 NHL games, with more than half of those (277) coming in the six seasons since the lockout. He has earned 113 of his 196 career NHL wins over that span, too.
“They’re a good team,” says Knuble of the Lightning. “You have to admire what Steve Yzerman’s done there. He’s really got the team going in the right direction. And you can’t say enough about the way Steven Stamkos has been scoring goals. The guy has 30 already and it’s January 3. Obviously you have to pay attention.”
The Lightning has been on a significant roll of late with an 8-1-1 record in its last 10 games.
“All you can do is warn them and talk about it,” says Boudreau when asked about keeping his team up after the Winter Classic. “Our opponent in name only should be enough to not have a hangover.
“We’re playing a team that’s tied with us, and I think they’re 8-0-1 or something in the last nine. We have to play the best we can, and they just made a trade for a good goaltender, so it’s an interesting scenario that’s going to happen.”
Notes: The Caps have made at least one lineup change in each of their last 22 games. The last time Washington dressed the same 20 players in successive games was Nov. 13-14 against Buffalo and Atlanta, respectively … Seven of Tampa Bay’s last 11 games have required overtime or a shootout to render a decision. The Bolts are 3-1 in overtime and 2-1 in shootouts during that span.
Thanks to Carter Myers for the assist on some notes.