January 31 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at St. Pete Times Forum
Time: 7:30 pm TV: NBC Sports Network Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 2 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (26-19-3)
Tampa Bay Lightning (21-23-4)
Washington begins the post-All-Star break portion of its regular season schedule on Tuesday when it makes the first of its three seasonal visits to Tampa to take on the Lightning.
Owners of a splendid 18-6-1 record on home ice, the Caps know they’ve got to start making some hay on the road if they hope to maintain their precarious position atop the Southeast Division. The Capitals come out of the break tied with Florida for the top spot in the division, and with the same number of points as both the eighth- (New Jersey) and ninth-place (Toronto) teams in the Eastern Conference.
Washington is in the midst of a stretch in which it plays six of seven games on the road. The Caps were 1-1-1 on a three-game trip shortly before the break.
“We had some mediocre success on that trip,” says Caps center Brooks Laich, “but we want to get back to [where we were]. In the past, we’ve been a dominant road team. [We] take care of business at home, but also we had a great road record. We want to get back to being that team. It’s not acceptable to play one way at home and play a different way on the road.”
The Caps will play three straight on the road the road this week where their record is a decidedly mediocre 8-13-2. They’ll also be playing a pair of back-to-back sets this week: Tuesday and Wednesday against the Lightning and Panthers, respectively; and Saturday and Sunday against the Canadiens and Bruins, respectively.
Over a span of 65 days from late November to late January, the Capitals played just two sets of games on back-to-back nights. They will now play three sets of back-to-back games in the next 14 days, this after five days off the ice altogether.
“It’s going to be tough for sure,” says Capitals center Marcus Johansson of the upcoming games at Tampa Bay and Florida on back-to-back nights. “They’re two really good teams. I think it’s the same for everybody. Five days off is a little odd, but we’ve got to get right back on the horse.”
The Caps reconvened after the break on Monday for an afternoon practice session in Arlington before departing for Tampa.
“The legs are a little funny and you’re not really feeling the puck,” says Johansson. “It’s a little different to get back in it, but we have a practice [Tuesday] morning to get ready. Five days is a long time to not be on the ice, but it’s the same for them.”
Washington will be without the services of captain Alex Ovechkin for each of the two games on this upcoming Florida trip. Ovechkin is serving a three-game, NHL-issued suspension for a hit on Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek in a Jan. 22 game at Pittsburgh. He opted out of the NHL’s All-Star Game in Ottawa over the weekend and spent the weekend relaxing and recharging his battery.
“It’s good refresh time for me,” says Ovechkin. “Refresh my body and my mind and I’m ready to go right now.”
In the first of their three games without Ovechkin in the lineup, the Caps held back the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins by a 5-3 score a week ago on Verizon Center ice. Mathieu Perreault notched the first hat trick of his NHL career to pace the Washington attack and Tomas Vokoun made 29 saves to earn his 20th win of the season.
Vokoun has picked up those 20 victories in just 33 starts. With the Florida Panthers last season, Vokoun needed 57 starts to earn 22 triumphs.
Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth have alternated starts in Washington’s last five games, and they may do so on this trip with the back-to-backs looming.
Washington made a roster move prior to departing for Tampa on Monday. The Caps signed forward Joel Rechlicz to an NHL contract and recalled him from AHL Hershey, where he was leading the league with 184 penalty minutes in 27 games.
The 24-year-old Rechlicz has appeared in a total of 23 career NHL games – all with the new York Islanders – picking up one assist and 95 penalty minutes in the process. His last taste of NHL action came on April 11, 2010 with the Isles against the Penguins. Rechlicz picked up 20 minutes worth of penalties in that contest.
“We’re excited to get back,” says Laich. “Guys enjoyed their break, got some time away from hockey. [They] took a vacation or got to see family or friends or whatever. But then you talk to everybody today, and everybody says they’re excited to be back. Everybody is on the ice 20 minutes before practice.
“We’re excited to get going, and they’re big hockey games for us. Tampa is a team that is still trying to make up ground, and then we have Florida, which is going to be a big battle. They are big games. We have to start winning on the road, and no better way to do it than against division teams.”
The Lightning came to within a game of the Stanley Cup final last spring, but the Bolts got out of the gates slowly in 2011-12.
After opening calendar 2012 with a seven-game losing skid (0-6-1), the Bolts reeled off four straight victories – their longest winning run of the season to date – going into the All-Star break. The Bolts outscored their foes by a combined total of 15-9 during the life of that streak. Mathieu Garon was in goal for three of those four victories; he has garnered the lion’s share of the netminding workload for the Lightning of late.
Since the start of December, Garon has started 18 of the Lightning’s last 24 games. During that span, he is 9-9-1 with a 3.24 GAA and an .893 save pct.
Dwayne Roloson was last year’s playoff hero for the Bolts, but the 42-year-old netminder hasn’t been sharp this season. During the aforementioned stretch in which Garon has started 18 of the team’s last 24 games, Roloson is just 1-3-1 in his six starts (nine appearances). He has a 3.90 GAA and an .873 save pct. since the beginning of December.
Tampa Bay’s power play has also fallen on hard times. Last season, the Bolts finished sixth in the NHL with a 20.5% success rate on the power play. They kicked it up to 25.4% in the playoffs last spring, tops among all teams that advanced past the first round.
This season, the Lightning’s power play sits at 27th in the circuit with a success rate of just 13.6%. Tampa Bay has not had multiple power-play goals in the same game since going 2-for-6 with the extra man in a 4-1 home ice win over the Penguins on Nov. 17.
Since that game, the Lightning has gone 11-for-96 (11.5%) with the extra man over a span of 30 games. That said, the Bolts still have to be considered dangerous with the man-advantage. They’ve got serious weapons such as Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Marc Bergeron and Vincent Lecavalier.
The Lightning is 1-for-9 on the power play in its two games against the Capitals this season.