Tonight marks the end of an era between the Capitals and the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s the final Southeast Division skirmish ever between the two clubs. The Capitals and the Lightning have been division mates for 19 of the 20 seasons of Tampa Bay’s existence.
The Bolts started their NHL life in the Norris Division in their inaugural season of 1992-93, and they joined the Caps in the Atlantic Division the following season. The Caps and Lightning then joined the Southeast Division together starting in 1998-99.
For the Capitals, tonight’s game is the game in hand they’re holding on the Winnipeg Jets. The Caps lead Winnipeg by two points for the Southeast crown, and after tonight both teams will have six games remaining. Tonight’s tilt against the Bolts offers Washington a chance to double its lead over the Jets from two to four points.
“For us right now, every game has been huge,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “Winnipeg keeps winning games; the Islanders are winning games. Everything that we do right now is so important. With the game in hand, it’s one of those things that is good for us in the standings but it’s good for us in the mental battle as well. If we can get up four points on them, they’re going to need some luck or a couple of favors from some other teams. It’s obviously a crucial game for us and we’d like to have it.”
Washington will also be seeking to extend its winning streak to seven straight tonight against Tampa Bay. That would mark the team’s longest winning run since it opened the 2011-12 season with seven wins in succession.
The Caps’ six-man defensive corps has helped key the team’s winning streak at both ends of the ice. Washington has allowed a total of just seven even-strength goals in its six-game winning streak, and Caps blueliners have been involved in 11 of the 19 goals Washington has scored during the same span.
“I think our team does a really good job of keeping pucks to the outside and letting Neuvy or Holtsy see the puck,” says Caps right wing Eric Fehr. “We have a really frustrating system to play against. We really create a lot of turnovers and we go to the right areas to retrieve pucks. I think it’s frustrating for other teams that are not getting as many rebound chances or second chances as they want.”
Washington’s blueline has contributed six goals and 13 points in the last six games. On the season, Caps defensemen have scored a total of 22 goals. Ten of those have come in Washington’s last 10 games.
Defenseman Mike Green has four goals and five points during the six-game winning streak. Blueliner Jack Hillen has a goal and four points and John Carlson has a goal and three points.
“Greenie is on fire right now, and Carly is going and Hillen’s chipping in,” says Caps defenseman John Erskine. “We’re getting a lot of big goals and it’s helping us out with the wins.”
A week ago tonight, newly acquired left wing Martin Erat suffered a lower body injury in the first period of Washington’s game against the Florida Panthers in South Florida. Tonight, he’ll return to the Capitals lineup after a three-game absence.
Erat is expected to skate the left side of a line with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. Aaron Volpatti, who had been filling in for Erat, will drop back down to the fourth line with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle while Wojtek Wolski is slated to be a healthy scratch against the Lightning.