LIGHTNING (31-29-6) at CAPITALS (32-28-6)
TV: NHLN-US (HD), SUN (HD), CSN-MA
Tampa Bay 7-3-0; Washington 4-5-1
The teams have split four games, with Washington winning once in a shootout and Tampa Bay prevailing once in overtime. Each of the four contests have been one-goal affairs. The Capitals had won 17 of 19 against the Lightning from Dec. 2007-Nov. 2010, but the Lightning have won eight of 12 meetings since (including all four in the postseason).
A regulation win would put the Lightning level on points with the Capitals, while Washington desperately needs to win one its few games left with a team it currently leads in the standings.
Six weeks ago, Tampa Bay was toast. The Lightning were 14th in the Eastern Conference, and 12 points shy of a postseason berth. They had also just yielded 33 goals during a seven-game losing streak. Thanks in part to the struggles of the other bottom-half clubs in the East, the Lightning have surged back into contention.
They are 14-6-2 since mid-January, and could be two points shy of eighth place after Thursday night. Steven Stamkos
has carried the offense, and Mathieu Garon
has stabilized the team's goaltending situation. That said, an injury to Garon threatens to ruin Tampa Bay's torrid comeback.
In a season of one step forward, one step back, it has turned into three forward and three back for Washington. The Capitals have sandwiched a pair of three-game skids around three straight victories. Just when three wins against inferior opponents had Washington primed to claim either the eighth spot in the East or even the Southeast Division lead, three straight home losses have the Capitals' postseason hopes very much in doubt again.
A big issue is the remaining schedule. After this contest, the Capitals have only five of their final 16 games against teams currently behind them in the NHL standings. They also have nine of those 16 on the road, where the Capitals are 11-18-3 this season.
Barring injury, Stamkos is going to collect the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, and he might just win the Art Ross Trophy as well. He has 28 goals and 44 points in the 32 games since the holiday break. Stamkos also has 10 multi-point games in his past 18 contests.
Garon is the latest blow for the Lightning, who may turn to Dustin Tokarski (44 career NHL minutes played) or a goaltender currently playing in Europe because of an ineffective Dwayne Roloson
. Tampa Bay is also short two of its top defensemen in Mattias Ohlund
(knees) and Marc-Andre Bergeron
(back). Oh, and captain Vincent Lecavalier
(broken hand) is also out. GM Steve Yzerman also traded away three forwards at the deadline, but the Lightning remain in the postseason hunt. … As a collective group, the Capitals are quite healthy but the one guy they are missing -- center Nicklas Backstrom
(concussion) is the team's most indispensable player. He was also the team's best player this year before he got hurt.
Stamkos has 144 goals since the start of the 2009-10 season. He shared the Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby in 2009-10, and is likely to become the fourth player (joining Alex Ovechkin
, Jarome Iginla and Pavel Bure) to have his name on the award twice. He has 34 more goals than any other player in that span (Corey Perry has 110). In Ovechkin's best three-year run (2007-08 to 2009-10), he had 35 more than his closest competitor.
The Capitals have been trying to focus on improving the team defense for more than a calendar year now, and coach Dale Hunter went even further than previous boss Bruce Boudreau with making the team's defensive system more passive to help reduce offensive chances for the opponent.
Still, the Capitals are struggling to keep the puck out of their own net. They have yielded five goals in three of the past eight games, and mistakes cost them in an overtime loss Tuesday night to Carolina.
"I'm sick and tired of giving up easy goals," forward Brooks Laich
said. "I mean, we're giving up goals that they don't have to work to score. It's killing us."