"They're a dangerous offensive team, they have been for the last few years," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of the Lightning. "I think that trip that they made out to Sweden [to play Buffalo twice] really got their game turned around a little bit. They've built up some momentum off of that, and they get [Steven] Stamkos back in their lineup tonight, so [they're] obviously dangerous.
"They go with seven defensemen and 11 forwards a lot, so oftentimes they'll have some pretty high end guys with some of their bottom tier players. So it's good to make sure we're aware of when their top guys are on the ice. Their defense as well is very active, and it's a tough opponent, as we've known from the last few years."
Smokestack Lightning - Last season, the Lightning was a regular season juggernaut. The Bolts rolled up 62 wins and 128 points, winning the Presidents' Trophy by 21 points, the second highest margin of all time, trailing only the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who piled up 131 points and won it with 27 points to spare.
But the Bolts bowed out meekly and quickly in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, getting swept aside in four straight games by the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning can't really make amends for last season until April when the playoffs come around again, but they've started to heat up after a slow start.
Regardless of their record, the Caps still see the Lightning as a formidable foe and one of the NHL's elite teams.
"They still have all the pieces," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "We know as well as anyone that there are some ebbs and flows in a hockey season. They're still dangerous, and they can still do what they've done in the past. I don't think we're taking them any differently than we would have in the past just because of their record."
"Over the years, the last five seasons or so, they've been a team that has a target as one of the best in the league," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "And it's one of those teams where it doesn't matter what's going on during the regular season; when the hockey gets important, they are always going to be a threat.
"They've got so many different weapons. Even if they're not playing their best hockey, they can definitely make you pay throughout the year, no matter what night it is. There is a bit of a rivalry there now, and it's definitely one that you kind of look forward to and circle on the calendar. Hopefully, we'll be ready for them."
Washington will start its three-game season's series against the Lightning tonight, and the two teams will be finished with one another before Christmas. All three meetings between the Caps and the Lightning come in a span of 23 nights. That's similar to last season, when the two teams clashed three times in the month of March, playing their entire season's series in a span of 15 nights.
"It's obviously different, but it is sort of nice that you're familiar with pre-scouts and that sort of thing," says Holtby. "It usually creates a bit of a rivalry that way, because they're fresh in everyone's mind, so it usually makes for pretty good hockey."
"Very similar this year; three times in three weeks this year," says Reirden, "so the schedule makers have done a good job of trying to help us build that rivalry. That's two years in a row where they've done that.
"It's two good opponents going head-to-head. They've got a good goaltender and are deep all the way down their lineup, as are we. It's good hockey. Once you have a seven-game [playoff] series the year prior, and then you start swinging it into the next season where there are games within a short period of time, I think that helps that rivalry and I think it's a good one for the game."
Blue Light - Only five NHL defensemen are currently averaging a point per game or better this season, and Friday's game features two of them. Washington's John Carlson leads all NHL blueliners with 36 points (eight goals, 28 assists and a league-leading 1.38 points per game among defensemen) and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman has 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in as many games this season.
The Lightning has three defensemen - Hedman, ex-Cap Kevin Shattenkirk (18 points), and Mikhail Sergachev - who have reached the double-digit level in points this season. The Bolts are one of seven teams in the league with that distinction.
Washington's blueline (68 points) has outscored Tampa Bay's rearguard corps (64 points), as Carlson has more points than the rest of the Capitals' defensive corps (32 points) combined.
Back In The Saddle Again - Having served his three-game NHL suspension, Caps winger Garnet Hathaway is back in the lineup tonight. The Capitals were 1-1-1 during Hathaway's absence.
"We're really happy to get Hathaway back in there," says Reirden. "Malenstyn will be out tonight, and I think he did a really good job for us. It's been great to watch him grow since the last few years, just through development camp and everything, and rookie tournaments. Glad to see him getting some games.
"We'll see how tonight goes, whether we get him back in there [Saturday] or not. But for tonight, happy to have No. 21 back on our side tonight."
While Hathaway was out, rookie winger Beck Malenstyn filled in capably, getting his first taste of NHL action. Although Malenstyn averaged 9:16 per game in ice time in those three contests - less than Hathaway's average of 11:38 - he picked up some of the slack on Washington's penalty killing outfit at a time when the Caps were also missing Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd, two of their top three penalty-killing forwards. Dowd returned to action on Wednesday against Florida after a two-week absence.
Hathaway celebrated his 28th birthday last week, and he is on track to log his 200th career NHL game on Saturday night in Detroit.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington tonight, making his sixth straight start. Holtby continues to roll; he has suffered just one regulation loss in his last 14 starts (11-1-2), and he has posted a 2.45 GAA and a .925 save pct. over that stretch.
"It's coming," says Holtby. "I feel comfortable. We're playing really well defensively right now, so it's easier to focus on just your job, and simplify. Any given night is different.
"Florida, they're a real good offensive team. You've just got to hold down the fort as long as you can. You look at [Wednesday] night, I let in the third goal, where it was just an uncharacteristic footwork error. I thought we did a really good job of focusing on your role, letting me do my job, and the guys in front were doing theirs, and that usually makes for success."
Lifetime against the Bolts, Holtby is 10-4-3 with two shutouts, a 2.97 GAA and a .902 save pct. in 19 regular season appearances.
We're expecting to see Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal for the Lightning on Friday. He has won nine of 16 starts this season (9-7-0), but has posted a better GAA on the road (2.76) than at home (3.04) thus far in 2019-20.
Lifetime against Washington, Vasilevskiy is 4-5-0 with a 3.64 GAA and a .901 save pct. The Caps have reached him for three or more goals in seven of those nine starts.
All Lined Up - Here is a look at how we expect the Capitals and the Lightning to look on Friday afternoon when they get together for the first time this season in the finale of Washington's three-game homestand:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 77-Oshie
14-Panik, 18-Stephenson, 72-Boyd
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
19-Backstrom (upper body)
62-Hagelin (upper body)
18-Palat, 21-Point, 86-Kucherov
17-Killorn, 91-Stamkos, 71-Cirelli
14-Maroon, 13-Paquette, 37-Gourde