Saturday's game is the middle match of the three-game season's series between the Capitals and the Lightning, a season's series that will be played out in a span of just over three weeks. The Caps won a 4-3 overtime decision over the Bolts on Black Friday (Nov. 29) in the first meeting between the two former Southeast Division rivals, and the two teams will finish up for 2019-20 a week from tonight in Washington.
In its 11 previous Mentors' Trips dating back to the 2007-08 season, Washington owns a 15-6-0 record.
Video: #CapsDads 2019 | Day 1
"I think it's been great," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of this season's Mentors' Trip. "We adjust it a little bit every year, something I love to be a part of and share what goes on every day in our day in, day out routine for these guys on our practice day, and a time when we could get out and do something totally different by going on the boat the other day as a group.
"Then today, they're able to come in and see meetings on how we prepare for the opposition and be here for the morning skate. Then they'll probably have some fun this afternoon [before the game] I imagine, and then meet us at the game, and then we'll have dinner together after. This is a trip where, again, [we have] a little less structure than we've had in the past, with your itinerary every hour being planned, and you're going to go to see this museum for an hour and a half, and this one for two hours.
"This is something I talked to the players about, and you know I lean on our leadership group heavily. And they like just some more time to just hang out with dad or their mentors or father-in-laws or whatever it is, as opposed to them chasing over the town. They'd rather spend some time just hanging out, and I think that's proved to be a nice lesson and I think they're really enjoying themselves."
Video: Reirden Pregame | December 14
After Friday's practice, several medium-sized groups of players and mentors made their way to various local eateries for dinner, and many of us reconvened together afterwards for libations. Whether it's a dad or mentor on his first trip of this type or an old hand who has been on half a dozen or more of them, it's a trip the players and dads alike look forward to and savor. The group of mentors is a tight one that looks forward to renewing its own bonds every season, and to welcoming new mentors into their mix.
"Obviously the first couple are very special, especially the first one," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "Just to see it, it's more emotional that way, I think. Now, it's more fun and as years go on, you realize you can't take it for granted as much anymore, especially this year with him.
"Out west, it's been a real tough harvest, so it's nice for him to get a little break, and I think he's been really looking forward just to unwind, and talk to some of the guys that he's been around before, and meet some new guys, and just to catch up because we don't see each other except a little bit at the end of games and in summer. So it's good timing for him."
For ex-Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas, the trip is a return to his NHL roots; he was a Tampa Bay draft pick who began his NHL career here after winning a Calder Cup with the Lightning's AHL Norfolk affiliate, and some of his old Norfolk and Tampa Bay teammates are still here.
"This is the place that I started the whole career here, and it's always going to be special for me coming down here to play some games," says Gudas. "And obviously, I have a different home now. I haven't lived here for number of years, but there's [Lightning forward] Ondrej Palat that my family's very close with, and a lot of guys that I won the Calder Cup with.
"It is always special when you have a teammate that you won something with. So yeah, it's always going to be fun to come down here. But everything aside, we need two points tonight and that's my main focus. We're staying here tonight, so maybe we'll get to time after the game to catch up or something. But until then, they're enemies."
Video: Rinkside Update | Leo Gudas
Although Gudas is an eight-year NHL veteran, this is the first mentors/fathers trip his dad has been on. Leo Gudas was quite a hockey player himself - he was a 1990 Calgary Flames draft choice, though he never played in North America - and he still coaches the game back home, which has prevented him from participating in previous trips.
"I think it's great for him to see," says Gudas of his dad. "He's been through this his whole life, the hockey life. I believe he kind of has a little bit of feeling of how it how it goes, and what to expect, but for example the [pre-scout] meeting this morning, he was really amazed with the detail and with everything that was going around with it, and how everybody was focused on certain points, like what we're changing from game-to-game based on who we're playing.
"He is coaching right now - or he's going to be coaching back home - and I think that the team that he's going to be coaching at home might get some new views on things and some new trends going on, so I think that's a good thing, too."
Tampa Bay is a popular spot for the Mentors' Trip; this marks the fifth time the Caps dads have taken in a Caps-Bolts game as part of the trip. The most recent occurrence was four years ago this week when Washington edged the Lightning 2-1 here on Dec. 12, 2015, two nights after suffering a 4-1 setback to the Panthers in Florida in the opening game of the journey.
Washington has won each of its four previous Mentors' Trip visits to Tampa Bay, needing the shootout to win by a 2-1 count on March 7, 2011.
Video: #CapsDads 2019 | Day 2
Fight The Power - On Wednesday night in Washington, the Caps' penalty killing outfit - with a primary assist from its crack video coaching staff - went 5-for-5 against a lethal Boston Bruins power play unit in a 3-2 Caps win. Three nights later in Tampa, the Caps will go up against an even more formidable extra-man unit.
In six of its 30 games this season, the Lightning has scored multiple power-play goals, including its 3-2 win over the Bruins here on Thursday. Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point both scored while the Lightning had the extra man in that game. Among all NHL teams, only the Edmonton Oilers (eight) have had more games with multiple power-play goals this season.
With Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on the dots, Point in the diamond or bumper spot in the slot, and Victor Hedman up top, the Lightning boast some of the league's top extra man talent.
When Washington and Tampa Bay met on Nov. 29 in Washington, the Caps turned in a terrific first period, dominating the Bolts and limiting them to one shot on net - and none at 5-on-5 - over a span of 16 minutes and 57 seconds. But the Caps took a late penalty in the first, and the Lightning took advantage of that opportunity to grab a 1-0 lead on Point's power-play goal with 1:10 left in the first.
The Caps killed three of four in that game in Washington, but they're definitely looking to be a bit more disciplined tonight in Tampa than they were on Wednesday in Washington.
"Our penalty kill has been good as of late," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson, "but we've been taking too many penalties. You don't want to be going to the box five, six times a game because in this league, one goal can be a big goal in any game. And if you give them that many opportunities to put the other team's best players on the ice, it's not a recipe for success.
"Same thing with these guys, we want to play disciplined. We want to play hard on them obviously, but stay out of the box because if you get the puck into their into their best players' hands, it helps them feel it, and it helps them create momentum for their team. If they score or they don't it, you don't want to be shorthanded. So we're going to have to be a little smarter with our sticks and stuff like that."
The Caps' penalty killing corps carries a streak of 19 straight successful penalty killing missions into Saturday's game with the Bolts. Washington's kill is at 85.3 percent on the season, third best in the circuit. But the Caps have gone shorthanded 116 times in 33 games this season; only the Sharks (123) and the Senators (117) have been down a dude more frequently.
In The Nets - Ilya Samsonov gets the net for Washington tonight, giving us a matchup of two of the best young Russian goaltenders in the game. In his rookie season in the NHL, Samsonov is 7-2-1 in 10 games (nine starts), with a 2.42 GAA and a .917 save pct. With his father Aleksei watching from above, he will face the Lightning and fellow Russian netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy for the first time.
"We want to try to get him involved in games a little bit more often," says Reirden. "So this was the one on the schedule that worked out right for us and we feel like it's a good challenge and a good situation to see where he's at. So we're excited about getting him in, obviously against a top notch team."
Reirden was asked whether Samsonov might draw extra motivation from going up against a fellow Russian in the opposition net.
"That's probably a little bit of a side note," says the Caps coach. "It's a great situation as his father is here as well from Russia, so a lot of things going for Ilya.
"To me, this is just another step and see where he is in terms of his development. We play him in back-to-backs and we've played him probably on at least three other occasions, and this is a time where it's not a back-to-back, but we feel like he's earned the game, and we'll see how it goes tonight against a very difficult opponent."
Aside from that, the Caps are also extremely mindful of getting Samsonov enough regular work - Washington only has a dozen sets of back-to-backs this season - and it also wants to keep No. 1 netminder Braden Holtby from being overworked. Holtby played extremely well in a pair of difficult assignments at home earlier in the week, against Columbus and Boston. And although Holtby owns a solid 11-4-3 lifetime mark against the Lightning, he has yielded three or more goals against in each of his last six starts against the Bolts, going 3-2-1 in the process. Holtby also pitched a shutout against the Jackets in his most recent start in Columbus.
"We don't really want [Samsonov] not playing any more than a week at a time," says Reirden, "and when we're in a situation like that it hurts his game overall. The other thing is we don't want to overplay Braden and he had what ended up being two difficult games this week where I thought he was a strong point both games to give us a chance against Columbus, and then I thought it was excellent against Boston."
Samsonov won each of his last two starts - at Detroit and at Los Angeles, respectively - and he permitted just three goals on 50 shots in the process. He has a 7-1-1 record in his nine starting assignments this season.
For Tampa Bay, we are expecting to see Vasilevskiy in net. On the season, he is 13-8-1 with a 2.78 GAA and a .910 save pct. But he has won four of his five December starts (4-1-0), posting a 2.20 GAA and a .926 save pct. along the way.
Lifetime against the Caps, Vasilevskiy is 4-5-1 with a 3.66 GAA and an .899 save pct. He has permitted three or more goals against in eight of his 10 career starts against Washington, including each of the last four.
All Lined Up - Here is a look at how we expect the Capitals and the Lightning to lineup on Saturday night when they meet for the only time in Tampa this season:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 14-Panik
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
18-Palat, 21-Point, 86-Kucherov
17-Killorn, 71-Cirelli, 91-Stamkos
14-Maroon, 13-Paquette, 37-Gourde
23-Verhaeghe, 67-Stephens, 7-Joseph
9-Johnson (lower body)
55-Coburn (lower body)