Washington is the league's defending Stanley Cup champion, and it eliminated the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final series on May 23 of last year in its most recent visit here. The Lightning would love to exact a measure of revenge for that loss, and as the NHL's best regular season team in a couple of decades, it is well equipped to do so.
"They probably have a little bad taste in their mouth from last spring," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "And they've been really good this year. That's stating the obvious; they are by far the most dominant team throughout, and they've been a really good team for the last half a decade at least. They've got a lot of dangerous players, and whoever goes to the final this year is probably going through them at some point.
"It'll be good for us to face them. I think it's good for us down the stretch to play quality teams. That gets us ready and it brings the best out in us, I think. When we are engaged because we are in a tough, tough game, I think we play focused and determined hockey. That will be good for us."
Washington has defeated each of its Eastern Conference opponents at least once this season, with the exception of the Lightning. The Caps will get three looks at the Bolts the rest of the way - tonight in Tampa, two weeks from tonight in Tampa, and in between those two tilts, Washington will host Tampa Bay this Wednesday. We wondered how important it is for the Caps to win at least one of these three games going into the postseason, so they'll have it in their minds that they can beat whomever they might run into once the playoffs get underway.
"This year is a different year," admits Niskanen. "But I think deep down, we know we are capable of it, because we have mostly the same group. But we are going to have to develop that edge again, and I think that is kind of what we are going through right now; we are trying to build that in this final stretch here.
"But yeah, you want to have success against them every time you can. Maybe you stay in their head a little bit, provide some doubt, We for sure want to play well against them. We want to see what works well against them, and see how we need to play to have success against them. That will be the focus."
Video: Alex Ovechkin Pregame | March 16
Improved Possession - When the Caps won the Stanley Cup last season, they did so despite not being darlings of the possession crowd. Washington finished the 2017-18 regular season at 24th in Corsi percentage (total volume of shot attempts) at five-on-five, at just 47.96 percent, lowest among all Eastern Conference playoff entrants. (For what it's worth, three of the top four teams on the same list for '17-18 missed the playoffs last season.)
Washington spent most of this season occupying similar territory in that regard, generally sitting in the bottom third of the league. But recently, the Caps have seen a significant uptick in their possession numbers. And it hasn't hurt them in the standings, either.
Just over three weeks ago, the Caps made a pair of seemingly minor moves in the days leading up to the trade deadline, adding left wing Carl Hagelin from Los Angeles and defenseman Nick Jensen from Detroit. But since injecting both of those players into the lineup, Washington has won eight of nine games while leading the NHL with a 58.06 percent Corsi for rating.
In simple terms, Hagelin has improved Washington's forecheck and Jensen has improved its breakouts. Both have improved the team's penalty kill, and its possession numbers.
"Obviously those two guys bring a ton to the table and have fit in pretty seamlessly with this group," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson of Hagelin and Jensen. "I think the coaching staff and management had a vision for what those guys were going to do, and they've been great for us. It's always good when that happens; it could easily go the other way. Those guys are both quality guys, and they've brought a lot to the table on the ice.
"It's that time of year when you're trying to build your game and you're trying to feel good about your game. If we have possession of the puck, I think it's in pretty good hands with the forwards that we have on this side. We've always been kind of selective of the shots we take and in generating quality, and I think for the most part, that has been what we are about as of late."
The Caps are capable of wearing teams down with their physicality, and that was something they used to their advantage during the playoffs last season. But in recent games, they've been effective at wearing opponents down just by having the puck. It takes a lot of energy out of an opponent to have them chase you and the puck around the rink for 60 minutes.
"When we do the right things with the puck," says Caps center Lars Eller, "we are in control. We know that when we do the right things, it works. We just need to have that mental focus and that attention to detail - we need to be sharp. And it doesn't matter what the score is."
The reality of it is that Washington is capable of winning a number of different ways, and doing so by displaying a strong possession game is just another of several weapons in their arsenal.
"I think that is something that last year made us successful," says Wilson. "Everyone says, 'Oh, one guy is going to come and hit you and get you off of your game.' But for us, it's a team thing. Go up and down the lineup, and we've got a bunch of guys who can play a variety of different games.
"I think one of the best battles I've ever seen was [Vegas defenseman Deryk] Engelland and [Caps winger T.J.] Oshie last year in the playoffs. A guy like Osh doesn't get credit for that, but they were going at it day and night. It's something as a group that we have that identity that we can play that heavy game, we can play the fast game, we can play the possession game. I think it's about executing our game plan, and we'll be all right."
Video: Rinkside Update | Nick Jensen
Danger: High Boltage - Tampa Bay leads the NHL in goals scored (3.82) and penalty killing (85.8 percent), and it is fourth in the league in goals against, allowing just 2.62 per game. But where the Lightning really excels is on the power play. It leads the league in that department as well at an even 29 percent on the season. If the season ended today, the Bolts' 2018-19 team would boast the sixth best power play in league history.
As good as the Caps have been with the extra man in the Alex Ovechkin era - and four of their seasons during Ovechkin's career rank among the league's top 50 in the expansion era - Washington's best power play season during Ovechkin's tenure in the District was in the lockout abbreviated season of 2012-13 when they clicked at 26.8 percent over 48 games.
During his days with Detroit earlier this season, Caps defenseman Nick Jensen faced the Bolts twice. He is the only Washington player who has played against Tampa Bay this season.
"Staying out of the box is No. 1," says Jensen. "But if we do take a penalty, it's going to be sacrificing the body. Guys are going to have to block shots. And we have seen that in the past with us, and guys are willing to do it. It's going to be especially important today because they've got two guys on the flanks that know how to shoot the puck, and they've got guys who know how to make plays, too.
"They are going to try to freeze us and make plays, and then get it to the flanks and shoot those one-timers, and we are going to have to get into those lanes. Obviously [Braden] Holtby is going to be huge for our part in those goal crease, to make big saves on those."
Tampa's extra-man unit features three scoring threats. Brayden Point leads the league with 19 power-play goals and Steven Stamkos is second with 17. Just those two players together have combined for more power play goals than 11 entire NHL Teams have scored this season. But the Lightning also has Nikita Kucherov, and his 12 power-play goals is tied for ninth in the NHL. Tampa Bay's top three threats have combined for more extra-man tallies (48) than 23 of the league's teams, including the Caps, who have 45 power-play goals in 2018-19.
"They've done it a number of different ways," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "They've got so many dangerous weapons on that group. Even when they have had injuries, they've had people who have filled in and done a good job for them. Definitely a strength of their team is special teams, both on the power play and the penalty kill. You don't win that number of games by accident, so it is definitely going to be a tough challenge tonight.
"[It will be] important for us to be able disrupt the best we can in zone and up ice, and not allow easy entries so they can get right to their setup. So it will be a challenge, but we feel like we've got at least a decent plan in place here tonight, and we will see them for the next couple of weeks here and make some adjustments as we go, as if it is a playoff series. It's a really good test for us."
Video: Todd Reirden Pregame | March 16
In The Nets - Braden Holtby will be in net for Washington on Saturday against the Lightning. He is coming off a 22-save effort in Philadelphia on Thursday, his 27th victory of the season and the eighth time in his last dozen starts that he has limited the opposition to two or fewer goals. In 16 starts since the All-Star break, Holtby is 10-5-1 with a shutout, a 2.44 GAA and a .919 save pct.
Last spring, Holtby won four of seven games over the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final series, and he blanked the Bolts in Games 6 and 7, holding Tampa Bay without a goal for the final 159 minutes and 27 seconds.
Holtby was the 27th NHL goaltender to record a shutout in a Game 7, and the fifth to do so to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup final. Along with Hockey Hall of Famers Harry Lumley in 1950 and Dominik Hasek in 2002, Holtby is just the third goaltender ever to propel his team to the Cup final with shutouts in both Games 6 and 7.
Lifetime against the Lightning in the regular season, Holtby is 9-3-2 with a couple of shutouts, a 2.75 GAA and a .910 save pct.
For the Lightning, Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in goal on Saturday. Although Vasilevskiy missed nearly a month of action with a fractured left foot before the turn of the calendar, he still ranks fourth in the league in wins and is only two victories away from league leader Marc-Andre Fleury of Vegas.
In 45 starts this season, Vasilevskiy has suffered only eight regulation setbacks (33-8-4). His .929 save pct. ranks second in the league this season, and his 2.27 GAA is fifth in the circuit. Lifetime against Washington in the regular season, Vasilevskiy is 2-4-0 with a 3.31 GAA and a .903 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Caps and the Lightning to look when they meet on Saturday night in Tampa:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
65-Burakovsky, 18-Stephenson, 72-Boyd
18-Palat, 91-Stamkos, 10-Miller
9-Johnson, 21-Point, 86-Kucherov
17-Killorn, 71-Cirelli, 7-Joseph
73-Erne, 13-Paquette, 37-Gourde
5-Girardi (lower body)
6-Stralman (lower body)