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Capitals know improved Lightning pose big challenge

by Corey Masisak
WASHINGTON -- Growing up in Calgary, Mike Green never had to worry about being one of the last kids picked on the schoolyard in any competition.

If Green is selected for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover, the talented offensive defenseman probably won't have to wait very long to have his name called, either.

This year's game has a new wrinkle with the introduction of a fantasy draft to decide how the players will be divided into teams, and Green's skill set probably makes him a desired commodity in the offensive-minded contest.

"I think it is interesting. I think it throws a little bit of a curveball into it and it will be exciting," said Green, who has yet to appear in an All-Star Game. "I was a bit of a freak when I was young. I was really tall and big and now I'm just kind of average. When I was young I didn't grow after I was 13 or 14. Yeah, I was always picked. I was lucky."

"He's just a natural goal-scorer, that guy. His release is just incredible. He competes and he can make plays, too, but he's just a goal scorer. The way he shoots the puck and his vision toward the net is incredible." -- Capitals' defenseman Mike Green on Stamkos

On Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), Green's Capitals will host a team with another player who should be among the first picks during the All-Star fantasy draft -- Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos. The 20-year-old dynamo leads the NHL with 13 goals and 24 points this season.

He also has outscored everyone in the League since Feb. 17, 2009, collecting seven more goals than Washington's Alex Ovechkin and eight more than Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

"He's just a natural goal-scorer, that guy. His release is just incredible," Green said. "He competes and he can make plays, too, but he's just a goal scorer. The way he shoots the puck and his vision toward the net is incredible."

It might still be early in the season, but this is a big contest for both teams. Washington is the three-time defending Southeast Division champion, and the past two titles have come easily. The Capitals' closest competitor last year was Atlanta, and the Thrashers finished 38 points behind the division leaders.

There were lots of changes this past offseason for Tampa Bay -- new owner, new general manager, new coach, several new players -- and the results to this point have been very positive. The Lightning are 8-4-2 and sit four points behind the Capitals in the division standings.

Tampa Bay was pegged by many pundits as a potential surprise this season, and so far the Lightning look like a legitimate threat to Washington's supremacy in the Southeast.

"Yeah, it is a big game," Washington defenseman Tyler Sloan said. "I guess if you talk to Bruce (Boudreau, coach), he'll say they're all big games because the points are just as important in October and November. We always try to put more emphasis on a division rival and especially with them not being the team they've been the past couple years."

Added center Nicklas Backstrom: "It is a division game and those can always be tough. You have to try to win all of these games. You don't want to miss out on these points. Plus, they are really good. I thought they were getting better last year, too. It is going to be a tough game and we just have to be prepared for it." 

Backstrom is another member of the Capitals who could be a candidate for his first All-Star Game appearance. He finished fourth in the League last season with 101 points, behind only Ovechkin, Crosby and leader Henrik Sedin of Vancouver. The Swedish center is off to a slow start with 14 points in 15 games, but he has 8 points in the past five games.

Green, Backstrom and Ovechkin are close friends, so if Ovechkin, the two-time League MVP, ends up as one of the captains and one of them is available, each expects their buddy to pick him, right?

"Well, that is a tough question," Backstrom said. "Hopefully? I don't know."

Added Green: "Who knows with that guy? I couldn't say. I would hope so."

And would Backstrom return the favor if he ended up as a captain and Ovechkin is available?

"Nope, not at all," he said, trying to keep a straight face. "OK, I am kidding; of course I would. … It sounds pretty cool. It will be interesting."

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