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by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning
Greetings from Washington, where the Lightning will meet the Capitals for the fifth time this season. I hope everybody had a wonderful holiday and had the opportunity to spend time with family and friends.
During the break, Lightning players undoubtedly took time to cleanse from their mouths the sour taste left from last Saturday’s game. Tied 1-1 after two periods with division-leading Carolina, Tampa Bay got outshot 16-5 in third period and lost, 4-1. According to Lightning coaches, the Bolts were outchanced, 9-0, in that final period. Tampa Bay enters tonight’s game having won just two of its last eight games and has fallen into fourth place in the division and the 14th slot in the Eastern Conference. Similarly, the Caps likely didn’t enjoy the holiday break as much as they could have. They are coming off a 3-2 overtime defeat to the Islanders and, according to the Washinton Post, were “outplayed, outshot and outhustled.” Despite having a 7-5-3 record under interim head coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals are just 0-1-2 in their last three games and own a Conference-worst 30 points.
But both teams have plenty of reasons to be optimistic regarding their position in the standings. The Lightning and Caps trail the Hurricanes by eight and 11 points, respectively, and hold a game in hand on the division leader. The Bolts are within five points of the eighth seed in the Conference while the Caps are eight points back. Given the inconsistent play that has plagued every team throughout the Eastern Conference (even Conference-leading Ottawa endured a seven-game losing skid), a modest winning streak can catapult a team into a great position. A case in point is Atlanta, which won its last four games heading into the break and is now just four points behind Carolina with a game in hand.
For the Lightning, there is another reason to be excited entering the post-Christmas portion of the schedule – the play of Karri Ramo. Granted, Ramo has only started two games for the Lightning, but he has been as good, if not better, than advertised. He was solid throughout last Thursday’s 2-1 win over Toronto, then single-handedly kept the Lightning in the game during Saturday’s aforementioned lopsided third period. In addition to his technical skill in stopping pucks, Ramo exudes an air of confidence and possesses a short memory. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese relayed to me the story of how he watched a game a couple of years ago during the Lightning’s preseason rookie tournament at Traverse City. Ramo started that game and yielded seven goals in three periods. But as Reese said: “The other guy had given up seven, too. And heading into overtime, you couldn’t tell from Ramo’s body language whether it was 7-7 or 0-0. And he ended up winning the game in the shootout.” These are intangible qualities that are rare to find in goaltenders. Again, this is not to suggest that Ramo won’t have his ups and downs, like any young player in the NHL, but there is a lot to like about what he has shown so far.
As for tonight’s game, I would expect that both teams will play a spirited game, given that fact that they are each coming off disappointing outcomes. The Bolts need to use that energy to generate more scoring chances and goals than they have done in recent games. Tampa Bay has netted two or fewer goals in eight of its last nine games (including a 3-2 loss to these Caps on December 15).
It’ll be important for the Lightning to contain Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Ovechkin has 25 goals this season and 3g-2a-5p numbers in four games against the Lightning. Incidentally, Ovechkin’s only pointless game in his last 11 came in that December 15 matchup against Tampa Bay. Semin missed 17 of Washington’s first 23 games due to an ankle injury, but he has started rounding into form of late. He enters tonight’s contest on a three-game goal streak.
The Lightning’s road struggles have been well-documented this year and it’s about time that something good happened for them away from home. Getting a lead would be a nice place to start. Too many times on the road this year, Tampa Bay has been staring up at an early multi-goal deficit. Tonight, the Lightning want to put the Caps in catch-up mode, not the other way around.
On the injury front, both Brad Lukowich (shoulder) and Craig MacDonald (mouth) skated this morning and should be in the lineup tonight. Tonight’s game begins a tough back-to-back for Tampa Bay. The Bolts are home to Montreal tomorrow night and the Canadiens, who don’t play this evening, will already be in their hotel beds when the Lightning’s team plane touches down in Tampa early this morning. Over the course of a long season, all teams have to deal with these scheduling quirks, so it will be interesting to see how well the Lightning handles this situation. 
By the way, tomorrow’s game at the St. Pete Times Forum has a special 7:00 PM start time, so don’t be late!
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