Thursday’s game at the Verizon Center won’t be about the head-to-head matchup between two of the league’s offensive superstars as much as it will be about both players’ respective teams battling for the final playoff spot in the tightly-bunched Eastern Conference standings.
The Lightning enter the brief one-game stint just two points behind the Capitals and four points behind Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg, as both Tampa Bay and Washington continue to keep pace and stay alive in the race.
While a regulation win by the Lightning would certainly tie them with the Capitals for the ninth spot, the addition of a regulation loss by the Jets at the hands of Vancouver, also on Thursday night, could help the Bolts cut the gap in the hunt in half.
“You know, all these games at this time of the year are pretty darn important for us,” Bolts defenseman Brendan Mikkelson
said. “But yeah, because it’s Washington and they’re so close to us in the standings, it adds a little more to it.”
After all, there is a lot in play for the Lightning.
Thursday’s matchup is not only a chance for Tampa Bay to climb up the ladder in the Eastern Conference standings, but it also is an opportunity for the Bolts to test themselves against a tough team.
The challenge, however, is perhaps greater without starting goaltender Mathieu Garon
in the mix, out three to four weeks with a torn groin muscle.
But even beyond the heated rivalry between the teams, intensified by the Lightning’s four-game sweep of the Capitals during last spring’s playoffs, Washington presents an interesting matchup due to it owning many similarities to this season’s edition of the Bolts.
Tampa Bay has been without defensive stalwart Mattias Ohlund
all season, and has played the past eight games without captain Vincent Lecavalier
, who is out indefinitely with a non-displaced fracture in his right hand.
Washington, meanwhile, endured a change in personnel behind the bench approximately midway through the season and has competed without one of its top forwards, Nicklas Backstrom, since Jan. 3 because of a concussion.
“It’s a huge game for us and Washington is looking for points too, so there seems to be a lot at stake for both clubs,” Lightning forward Tom Pyatt
said. “They’re pretty much in the same boat as we are.”
Adding to the drama is that of all four games thus far in the season series between the clubs, each have been decided by just a single goal, including two that have gone past regulation.
That could end up boding well for the Lightning, who lead the league with 21 wins in one-goal games.
Still, Pyatt said the team has been trying to avoid looking at certain stats, or even the standings for that matter, as the club strives to maintain the same narrow focus that has made it so successful in recent weeks. That includes being consistent with the team’s mindset, which has been to treat every game like it’s a playoff contest.
Funny thing is, Thursday’s matchup in the nation’s capital kind of is.
“There’s no such thing as urgency for us anymore,” Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher said. “There’s no word in the dictionary that we haven’t gone through this season to describe our situation.”
“It is,” he added, “life or death for us.”