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April 7 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: 106.7 The Fan and Caps Radio Network
Tampa Bay Lightning (16-19-2)
Washington Capitals (19-17-2)
The Caps finish up the back end of their last set of back-to-back games this season on Sunday night when they take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center.
Washington will be looking to maintain its hold on the top spot in the Southeast and to hold back the Lightning, which has been playing better hockey since Jon Cooper took over behind the Tampa Bay bench late last month.
Entering Sunday’s slate of NHL activity, there are three weeks remaining in the regular season. The Caps and Jets are tied atop the Southeast Division with 40 points, but Washington holds two games in hand on Winnipeg.
Games in hand only mean something if you win them, and the first of those games in hand is Sunday against the Lightning. Winnipeg is now idle until Tuesday when it hosts Buffalo; the Capitals visit Montreal on Tuesday night.
With Sunday’s game against the Lightning, the Caps are concluding the most grueling portion of their 2012-13 schedule, a stretch in which they play 17 games in 30 nights. Sunday marks the 30th night and the contest against the Lightning is the 17th game of that rugged run. Sunday also concludes the back end of the Capitals’ final set of games on back-to-back nights this season.
Thus far, the Caps are 9-6-1 during the aforementioned 30-day spell.
Washington has been even hotter over the shorter term. With Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Panthers in South Florida, the Caps are 7-1-1 in their last nine games and they’ve won three straight for the third time this season.
The Caps have yet to win as many as four straight games this season, but they have a chance to do s with a victory over the Lightning.
Caps goaltender Braden Holtby has started each of Washington’s last 11 games, the second time this season he has started 11 contests in a row. Caps coach Adam Oates said on Saturday that he and his staff had to find a way to get backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth some work, and Sunday’s game against the Bolts looks like an opportune spot.
Neuvirth’s last start came in a 4-1 loss at Boston on March 16. He was slated to face the Flyers in Philadelphia on March 31, but suffered a minor injury at the team’s morning skate in Buffalo a day earlier.
Thus far this season, Neuvirth is 2-5-1 with a 2.99 GAA and an .899 save pct. Lifetime against the Lightning, he is 2-1-0 with a 3.21 GAA and a .901 save pct. Neuvirth earned the first win of his NHL career against the Bolts in Tampa Bay on Feb. 14, 2009 in a 5-1 Washington win.
Washington’s top forward trio of Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin remained hot in Saturday’s win over the Panthers. Ovechkin recorded the 12th hat trick of his NHL career and his linemates each had multiple assists. Backstrom had three helpers and Johansson two on the night.
Ovechkin now has 14 goals and 21 points in his last 13 games. Backstrom has three goals and 17 points in his last 11 games, and Johansson now has four goals and 15 points in his last dozen games.
Tampa Bay roared out of the gates with a 6-1 mark in its first seven games this season, a run that included a 6-3 whipping of Washington in a Jan. 19 opening night tilt in Tampa. The Caps returned the favor just under a month later, taking a 4-3 decision from the Bolts in the same location.
The Lightning fell on hard times thereafter, going 7-17-1 in its next 25 tilts. That miserable stretch led to the ouster of Guy Boucher as the Bolts’ bench boss; he was fired on the morning of March 24 and Cooper replaced him days later.
Tampa Bay is now 3-1-1 in five games with Cooper pulling the reins. Most recently, the Lightning lost a 4-2 road decision to the Islanders in New York on Saturday.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman made a deal last summer to obtain big but inexperienced goaltender Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators. Lindback came to the Lightning with a total of just 10 career NHL starts under his belt, and he has been a bit of a disappointment this season.
In 21 games this season, Lindback is 10-7-1 with a 2.88 GAA and a .903 save pct. Both of those qualitative figures are beneath the league average.
At Wednesday’s trade deadline, Yzerman dealt Calder Trophy candidate Cory Conacher to Ottawa for another big goaltender, Ben Bishop. In 13 games with Ottawa this season, Bishop was 8-5-0 with a 2.45 GAA and a .922 save pct.
Bishop sparkled in his Lightning debut on Thursday, pitching a 5-0 shutout over the Hurricanes in Carolina. He made 45 saves in the process, tying a franchise record held by Daren Puppa for most stops made in a shutout victory.
Tampa Bay is currently carrying three goaltenders; veteran journeyman Mathieu Garon is also on hand in addition to Lindback and Bishop. After the team’s back-to-back games on Long Island and in Washington this weekend, the Lightning has two more sets of back-to-backs remaining in its 2012-13 slate.
Believe it or not, Sunday’s game represents the first of Tampa Bay’s two visits to Verizon Center this season. The Capitals and the Lightning have shared occupancy of the same division for the better part of the last two decades but will be separated starting next season under the NHL’s 2013-14 divisional gerrymandering.
The Lightning began its NHL life in 1992-93 as a member of the Norris Division, but it was shifted into the Atlantic Division along with Washington at the start of the following campaign. The Caps and Lightning both moved into the Southeast Division when another NHL re-districting occurred in 1998-99 and the Southeast was spawned.
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