For the past two seasons the Washington Capitals
have won the Southeast Division with relative ease, finishing a combined 49 points ahead of the competition.
To put it in perspective, three other teams -- New Jersey, Vancouver and San Jose -- also have won their divisions each of the past two seasons, and the combined margin for those six titles is only 51 points.
Washington's quest to capture the division flag for a fourth straight season has been met with much greater resistance. Some of it is self-inflicted -- the Capitals have gone winless in 20 of their past 33 games since beginning the season with a League-leading 14-4-1 start.
The other part of the equation, though, is the Tampa Bay Lightning
. While the division as a whole is improved (all five teams entered Friday in the top 11 of the Eastern Conference, including four in the top nine), no team has taken a step forward -- and sustained it -- like the Lightning.
No team understands Tampa Bay's improvement more than Washington. The Capitals have dominated the Lightning since Bruce Boudreau
became the coach, and spanked them twice to begin this season.
Since the Lightning acquired goaltender Dwayne Roloson
on New Year's Day -- while the Capitals were collecting one of their best wins of the season in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic -- Tampa Bay has shut out Washington in both meetings and forged a five-point lead in the division.
When the two teams meet Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) at the St. Pete Times Forum, it will be the first time since early in the 2008-09 campaign that Washington will face a Southeast foe and be the team with fewer points in the matchup.
"We've got to be the chasers," Boudreau told reporters. "We've been in this position before, so it's not totally new to them. But it makes every game a little more vital."
Boudreau was speaking of the team's run to the 2007-08 division title, the first in its current run of success. He helped lift the club from 30th place in the NHL standings on the day of his arrival in late November to the Southeast title, securing it with a seven-game winning streak to close the season.
That team was chasing the Carolina Hurricanes
, who still had several of the key pieces from the team that had captured the Stanley Cup two seasons prior. That team also probably didn't have as much high-end talent as this Tampa Bay group does, and Roloson has provided a huge lift.
The pre-trade Lightning goaltending tandem of Dan Ellis
and the recently waived Mike Smith
combined for the worst save percentage in the NHL, and Tampa Bay still was even with Washington for first in the division. Had Roloson joined the team and just provided average goaltending it would have been an improvement, but he's been far better than average, going 8-3-0 with a 2.02 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.
Given the offensive firepower Tampa Bay possesses, that level of goaltending makes the Lightning a serious threat in the Eastern Conference.
"They believe in their system and they're doing it to a 'T,'" Boudreau said. "They believe in their goalie now, whereas maybe before they didn't believe in the goalie. … They're a confident team, and rightfully so."
Washington's struggle to score this season has been puzzling, but when the Capitals were winning it was considered an acceptable tradeoff considering the team's new commitment to playing better defense. Given how the losses have mounted in the past two months, however, the quest for more scoring has become urgent.
The Capitals, once the most feared offense in hockey, one capable of putting up crooked numbers on almost any night, have scored more than three goals just three times in the past 26 games. They've been held to zero or one goal nine times during that stretch.
Their goal prevention has kept them in games, but the offense hasn't been able to win them. The Capitals are 9-9-8 since Dec. 2, and of the 17 games they didn't win, 12 were one-goal games.
Scoring a goal of any kind against Roloson and the Lightning was a problem in January, and the Capitals are going to need to solve him Friday or risk falling seven points back in their bid for a fourth straight division crown.
"We know that team is going to take that game extremely seriously, which means they're going to be better than they were last time," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher
told reporters. "If we're not better, they're going to beat us."