LIGHTNING (17-21-4) at CAPITALS (22-17-2)
TV: NHLN-US (HD), SUN (HD), CSN-MA+
Last 10: Tampa Bay 3-5-2; Washington 6-3-1
Season Series: This is the second of six season meetings between these Southeast Division rivals, and the first in more than three months. Back on Oct. 10, Washington earned its only shootout victory of the season as a back-and-forth game ended when Matt Hendricks and Alexander Semin beat goalie Dwayne Roloson for a 6-5 win.
Big Story: Two teams that entered the season with high expectations are struggling as the season moves beyond the midway point. Washington has shown improvement, occupying the eighth and final playoff position after the resurgence of Alex Ovechkin has keyed the Caps to wins in five of its last seven. Tampa, meanwhile, lost its fifth in a row Thursday at Carolina, one of only two teams currently ranked lower than the Bolts in the Eastern standings.
Lightning: Tampa showed some rays of hope with a three-game winning streak to close 2011, but a string of five straight losses to start the new year has drained away any momentum the Bolts had. Thursday's 5-2 home loss to Carolina hurt -- Tampa Bay allowed four first-period goals to the 'Canes and never got within two goals. The Lightning have been outscored 24-11 during their current skid.
"I would say this is the hardest one to take this year," coach Guy Boucher said. "We always talk about attitude first, work ethic and then discipline, and in the first period we had none of those."
Starter Mathieu Garon allowed three goals on eight shots in just a little more than 15 minutes of action. Nate Thompson and Teddy Purcell scored for Tampa Bay, while League goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos was limited to a lone assist and two shots.
Capitals : The Caps didn't get a lot of scoring opportunities on Wednesday night -- but thanks to Tomas Vokoun, they didn't need many. Vokoun stopped all 30 shots he faced and made Jason Chimera's first-period goal stand up in a 1-0 victory against Pittsburgh. It was a pick-me-up for the Caps, who came home to start a four-game homestand after back-to-back 5-2 losses at San Jose and Los Angeles. The win put Washington eighth in the East-- the Caps and Penguins each have 46 points, but Washington has a game in hand.
"Everybody watches the standings," coach Dale Hunter said. "It's so tight that you need every win."
After scoring seven points over a four-game stretch, Ovechkin has none in the Caps' last three games. A visit from Tampa Bay could help -- Ovi has 14 goals and 21 assists in his last 20 games against the Lightning.
Who's Hot: In addition to his winner Wednesday against the Pens, Chimera had two goals in Washington's 6-5 shootout win earlier this season. … Stamkos has 19 points in his last 13 games.
Injury Report: Bolts winger J.T. Wyman (finger) missed Thursday's game against Carolina. Adam Hall will be out two months with a forearm injury, while Victor Hedman (concussion) and Ryan Shannon (lower body) are on injured reserve. … The Caps are without two of their top players, defenseman Mike Green (strained groin) and center Nicklas Backstrom (head).
Stat Pack: Washington is 20-3-1 in its last 24 games against Tampa Bay, including a 10-1-1 mark at the Verizon Center.
Puck Drop: After rallying from 2-0 and 4-2 deficits to get a shootout point against powerful Vancouver on Tuesday, the Lightning showed very little against Carolina, which entered the game last in the Eastern Conference -- much to Boucher's chagrin.
"We get up for the big games against the big teams," he said. "I don't think we're being very respectful to teams like Carolina, or anybody else that is a little bit lower in the standings than the top-three teams in the conference."
We can't have that, period. We're not in a position to think that we're better than any other team."