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by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning @ Washington Capitals

Following a rigorous three days of practice last week, the Lightning strung together two excellent efforts. True, the Lightning didn’t win last Thursday’s game in Boston, but that outcome was due to the play of Bruins’ goaltender Tim Thomas, who put forth a game-stealing 35-save performance. On Saturday against Atlanta, the Lightning followed a similar blueprint of solid team play and on that night, the Bolts’ work led to six goals and a 6-2 triumph.

Tonight against the Capitals, the Lighting will attempt to maintain the standard it set in the last two contests. Playing a disciplined and intense game featuring an aggressive and effective forecheck will be critical against Washington. The Caps, under the guidance of head coach Glen Hanlon, have shown over the past two seasons that they will take advantage of any opponent that match their own tremendous work ethic. Furthermore, those Washington teams of 2005-06 and 2006-07 did not have the talent of this year’s edition. The Caps added four offensively gifted players during the offseason: free agents Michal Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti along with 2006 first round pick Nicklas Backstrom. Combining those players with superstar Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, who netted 38 goals in 2006-2007 (including nine against the Lightning), gives the Caps a variety of offensive weapons.

So in addition to equaling, if not exceeding, Washington’s work ethic, the Lightning will need to limit the scoring chances of Washington’s dangerous players. Surprisingly, the Capitals have only scored 14 goals in their first seven games (one would expect a higher total, given the talent on the roster). But there have been reasons. Semin, bothered by an ankle injury, has only played in one game. Also, integrating several new players into the lineup often does not result in “instant chemistry”. Still, the Caps are too good offensively to continue their paltry two goal-per-game average. Furthermore, with Semin expected back on the ice against Tampa Bay, Washington will look to break out of their offensive slump tonight. The Lightning, obviously, will hope to extend Washington’s goal scoring woes for at least one more game. Head coach John Tortorella said this morning that he expects the Caps, in an attempt to get untracked offensively, to throw a lot of pucks at the Lightning net and create traffic in front. The Bolts can counter that with a good puck possession game – following the Lightning’s philosophy of “if we have the puck, the opponent can’t score”.

If chemistry has been an issue for the Capitals, it hasn’t been for the Lightning, especially in the last two games. During the Boston game, John Tortorella moved right wing Jason Ward onto a line with Brad Richards and Jan Hlavac. Michel Ouellet took Ward’s spot alongside Chris Gratton and Mathieu Darche. Both these lines have worked quite well together – Gratton’s line contributed two even strength goals against the Thrashers while Richards’ line generated plenty of scoring chances in both games last week. Those two lines, as well as the Lecavalier-Prospal-St. Louis unit (which accounted for two even-strength and two power play goals versus Atlanta) and the grinding fourth line of Craig MacDonald, Andre Roy and Nick Tarnasky, will attempt to pick up where they left off last Saturday.

Special teams and goaltending will be keys, as they always are. Washington ranks near the bottom of the league in both power play and penalty killing percentage. The Lightning is coming off a game in which it outscored the Thrashers, 2-0, on the special teams. Tampa Bay has helped its penalty kill, which struggled three games ago in a loss to the Panthers, by staying out of the box. The Bolts did not have to kill one penalty in Boston and was shorthanded only twice against Atlanta.

In net for Washington, the incomparable Olaf Kolzig gets the start. The 37-year old former Vezina Trophy winner is certainly capable of single-handedly winning a game for his team. The Lightning has been the victim of such Kolzig performances over the years. Last November 28 in Tampa, Kolzig stopped 48 of 50 Lightning shots in a 5-2 Washington victory. But Tampa Bay has also had success against Kolzig – in the 2006-07 season series, even that 50-shot loss, the Lightning won four of six games in which Kolzig started.

For the Lightning, Marc Denis will get his first start of the year. Denis played well in a relief role on October 13 against the Panthers, but that appearance occurred 11 days ago. If there is any rust, Denis will need to shake it off quickly, especially if the Caps are able to apply pressure early in the game. The Lightning does not want to fall behind early, a trend that hurt the club in each of its first two road games.

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