March 8 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 5:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5:00 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Tampa Bay Lightning (31-29-6)
Washington Capitals (32-28-6)
Washington’s five-game homestand comes to a close on Thursday night when the Capitals host the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center. The Caps are just 1-2-1 to date on the homestand, and they’re in dire need of a win against the Bolts. The Capitals hit the road for six of their next seven contests after the Tampa Bay game.
The Caps forged a 2-0 second-period lead over the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center on Tuesday night, but they were unable to close the deal. Carolina scored three unanswered goals to take a 3-2 lead in the third, and the Caps needed a late Brooks Laich goal to draw even and gain a point by virtue of extending the game to overtime.
Another Washington defensive breakdown – a common theme for the team of late – caused a Carolina 2-on-1 in overtime and Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk cashed in, forcing the Capitals to settle for one point when they badly needed a pair.
With 16 games remaining and nine of those on the road, the Caps have put themselves in a position where they’ll need to win road games a rate greater than the rate at which they’ve won them thus far this season.
“It’s very frustrating,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “I think it’s been frustrating for everybody since just after Christmas when we started seeing how much inconsistency we were having and not being able to turn it around and get into any [winning] streaks. We keep talking about that we’re going to do it the next day and it never seems to amount to anything.
“That part is incredibly frustrating for us. But we know we have to play better on the road. Now, it’s not wanting to play better on the road, it’s having to play better on the road. We’ve put ourselves in a bit of a position here that is going to make things a lot tougher on ourselves. And we’re playing some good teams, teams that are playing really good hockey right now. It’s not getting any easier. We’ve just got to make sure we step up our game.”
Even home ice hasn’t been kind to the Capitals of late. Washington has won only four of last 11 games (4-5-2) at Verizon Center. The Caps have dropped three straight at home (0-2-1) for the first time since Nov. 25-Dec. 1.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth has started six straight games for the Capitals, winning the first three of those. He is 0-2-1 in his last three starts, allowing 10 goals in those three contests. Netminder Tomas Vokoun’s last start came on Feb. 22 in Ottawa, and Neuvirth came on in relief of him in each of his last two starting assignments. Vokoun was briefly sidelined with a lower body injury and was unavailable for a couple of games last weekend, but there’s a chance he’ll get the net back for Thursday’s game with Tampa Bay.
Vokoun has been particularly strong at Verizon Center this season, posting a 16-5-1 record with three shutouts, a 2.06 GAA and a .929 save pct. on home ice.
The Caps’ power play has been all but dormant of late. In their last 21 games, Washington’s extra-man unit has surrendered as many goals (five) as it has scored. The Caps are 5-for-58 (8.6%) on the power play during that stretch, and they’ve gone without an extra-man tally in 17 of those 21 games. Currently, the Caps are without a power play goal in each of their last six games (0-for-14).
On the morning of Jan. 16, the Capitals occupied the top spot in the Southeast Division standings while Tampa Bay was parked in the basement, a dozen points behind Washington. But since that date, the Bolts have twice defeated the Caps in Tampa Bay, and they’ve surged northward in the Southeast standings to the point that they are now
Even though Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman dealt away forwards Dominic Moore and Steve Downie and defensemen Pavel Kublna and Matt Gilroy for draft choices and prospects prior to the NHL’s Feb. 27 trade deadline, Tampa Bay has moved within striking distance of a playoff berth.
The Lightning’s power play and its goaltending were both strengths on the team’s drive to the Eastern Conference final last spring, but both areas have been lacking in 2011-12.
Tampa Bay has allowed an average of 3.38 goals per game, the worst figure in the league. The Lightning has a goal differential of minus-38 for the season.
Goaltender Mathieu Garon was signed as an economical insurance policy for aging veteran Dwayne Roloson last summer, a move that has paid off for the Bolts. Garon was inked to a two-year deal with an annual salary cap hit of just $1.3 million. Although his peripheral numbers of a 2.59 GAA and an .902 save pct. in his last 18 starts are merely ordinary, Garon has posted a 12-3-2 during that run.
Tampa Bay is Garon’s sixth NHL stop in the 34-year-old veteran’s 11-year NHL career, and he has made more appearances (48) for the Lightning this season than he has in any other campaign but one. Garon made 63 appearances (61 starts) for the 2005-06 Los Angeles Kings, posting a 31-26-3 record in the process.
Garon suffered a lower body injury during the Lightning’s 7-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday. Tampa Bay recalled netminder Dustin Tokarski from AHL Norfolk, where he had won each of his last eight decisions.
Roloson has been used sparingly in the last several weeks, appearing just five times and making three starts since the NHL’s All-Star break. He has a 1-3 record with a 4.61 GAA and an .860 save pct. during that stretch.
Tokarski had a brief, two-game NHL baptism with the Bolts more than two years ago. The 22-year-old shares a birthdate (Sept. 16, 1989) with Caps goaltending prospect Braden Holtby and hails from Saskatchewan (Humboldt), as does Holtby (Lloydminster).
Tampa Bay’s second-half resurgence has also featured the skilled hands of sniper Steven Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 48 goals and is tied for the league lead with 81 points. Stamkos has 10 more goals than any other player in the league.
Stamkos has scored in each of his last four games, and he has 16 goals in 18 games since the All-Star break. Five of those tallies have been game-winners.
Stick tap to Carter Myers for some statistical assistance.