The All Star Game is history. Goalie-Cam, Corey Perry’s stick, Patrick Kane’s Superman glasses and cape, white gloves… all put away. It is back to business, and for the Washington Capitals that means a 34-game sprint to the finish of the regular season that starts tonight in Tampa to face the Lightning. The Caps start the sprint from the pole position, first place in the Southeast Division by virtue of the fact that they actually win hockey games in the hockey portion of the hockey game. Despite their having the same number of standings points as the Florida Panthers, the Caps have 25 regulation and overtime wins to 19 such wins for the Panthers. That could be a big deal down the stretch, since it is the first tie-breaker if the teams finish the season tied in standings points at the top of the division.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Tonight the Caps visit Tampa Bay for the first time this season after winning the first two games of the season series in Washington. The left coast of Florida has been rather kind to the Caps, who are 10-2-0 against the Lightning in their last dozen regular season visits. They were 2-1-0 in their three visits last season.
The hosts come into this game riding a four-game winning streak after opening January 0-6-1. The difference between the two streaks has been defense and goaltending. In the first seven games of the month the Lightning allowed an average of 4.71 goals per game with an accompanying save percentage from their goaltenders of .849. In their four game winning streak they have allowed an average of 2.25 goals per game with an accompanying save percentage of .923. Here is how the two teams stack up overall for the season:
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2. If Steven Stamkos is going to slow down in his goal scoring pace, he has given no signs of doing so yet. He has not gone consecutive games without a goal since December 21-23. In the 14 games since then he has 12 goals, and he is on a pace to be the only 50-goal scorer in the league (55). He has nine in 20 career regular season games against Washington.
3. Tampa Bay’s power play has struggled in the new year. In 11 games during January the Lightning are 3-for-33 (9.1 percent). The other side of the special teams has not been much better. The penalty killers are 29-for-37 (78.4 percent) over the same 11 games, although during the four-game winning streak they are 12-for-13 (92.3 percent).
4. Tampa Bay is the only team in the league to have allowed a total of at least 50 goals in each of the first, second, and third periods of games this season.
5. The Lightning lead the league in most losses by three of more goals (13). Only two teams have more losses by two goals. This is not a team that loses close.
2. Washington has the second worst combined power play/penalty kill index number in the league. Adding their 76.6 percent penalty kill to their 13.0 percent power play on the road makes their combined index of 89.6 second worst only to Columbus’ 87.6.
3. As if you need reminding, with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin out, your top three scorers taking the ice tonight for the Caps will be Dennis Wideman (9-25-34), Alexander Semin (12-16-28), and Marcus Johansson (10-18-28). Tampa Bay will start three players with more than 40 points (Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier).
4. Michal Neuvirth would appear to be ticketed to baseball cap duty tonight, but he does have an odd career record against the Bolts. He has won both decisions in four appearances against Tampa Bay, but he has a GAA of 3.38 in doing it.
5. This is the first of a back-to-back set of games in Florida. The Caps are 3-2-0 in the opening game of back-to-backs so far this season.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:
Tampa Bay: Steve Downie
Two years ago, Steve Downie had a breakout season. With 22 goals and 46 points in 79 games, he gave indications he could be more than just a pot-stirrer. Last season, however, he dropped to ten goals in 57 games. This season he has eight goals in 45 games (a 14-goal pace), but is a minus-18, worst on the team and 822nd among 828 skaters in the league. He has been a little more productive of late, going 1-3-4, plus-1 in his last four games. But someone has to take some pressure off the big-three of Stankos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier, and Downie might be someone to look for to do that, and not just be the guy with 111 penalty minutes in 45 games.
Washington: Brooks Laich
Part of being Mr. Versatility for the Caps is not just being able to skate in all situations, but being able to produce in them. And that brings us to goal-scoring. Brooks Laich has one goal in his last 15 games (34 shots on goal) and is on a pace to finish the season with 15 goals, a total that would be his lowest since the 2006-2007 season. He has eight in 43 career games against the Lightning, but the bigger picture here is that even if Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were in the lineup, the Caps need to get a bit more goal scoring from Mr. Versatility.
1. First 20. Any team coming off a long hiatus might be susceptible to a slow start in their first game back. The Caps are already a team that seems to have that problem, regardless of time between games. They are a minus-7 in the first period of games this season and have allowed the first goal 25 times in 48 games. The Caps are not in a position to let anyone get off to a fast start against them, given their struggles to mount offensive pressure in the last month.
2. Score by Committee. As long as Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Green are out – and even when they are back, for that matter – the Caps need to do a better job of scoring by committee. Laich has that one goal in his last 15 games. Joel Ward has one in his last 35 games. Mike Knuble has one in his last 39 games. Even Jason Chimera, who started the season so hot, has only one in his last 15 games. The Caps are going to struggle to win games if this kind of production doesn’t change.
3. Play Smart. Only one team has fewer power play opportunities at home than does Tampa Bay (69 in 21 games). Only seven teams have fewer power play goals at home than the Lightning (14). Don’t give them any cheap opportunities.
In the end, maybe treating the first half as a bad dream and tonight as if they were 0-0-0 is the best way to go. The first half was disappointing to say the least, but the Caps have an opportunity to make things right in the last 34 games. On paper, they are still the class of the Southeast, but they played those first 48 games as if “on paper” was enough. Starting tonight, they have to toss that paper in the waste basket and tend to their business on the ice.
Caps 4 – Lightning 2