Oct. 9 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Amelie Arena
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Washington
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 2-0-0
Tampa Bay Lightning 1-1-0
In the wake of a stirring 6-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in their home opener on Saturday night, the Capitals now embark upon another one-game road journey. Washington now travels to Tampa to take on the Lightning on Monday night, the third straight game against an Atlantic Division opponent to start the season.
Washington opened the season with a one-game trip to Ottawa, a journey that resulted in a 5-4 shootout win over the Senators on Thursday night. The Caps are now aiming for a third straight win to start the season, something Washington hasn’t done since it won seven straight games at the outset of the 2011-12 season.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin notched a hat trick in the opener in Ottawa, scoring three goals in the third period to help Washington square the score and force overtime. Two nights later in Washington, Ovechkin netted three goals in the first period against Montreal, then netted his fourth goal of the game in the second.
Two games into the campaign, Ovechkin has seven goals, which is more than 20 percent of his total from last season (33). Six of his seven goals here in the early going have come at even strength; he had a career low 16 goals at even strength in 2017-18.
“You can see maybe he is more hungry,” says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov, referring to linemate Ovechkin. “I can see this in his eyes.”
Kuznetsov has accrued seven assists in the young season, picking up a helper on each of Ovechkin’s goals to lead the league in that category so far in the young season. Six of those helpers have been primary assists, and the two Russian linemates currently share the league scoring lead.
Along with linemate Jakub Vrana, that trio has combined for seven goals and 17 points in two games.
“It’s tough to say,” shrugs Kuznetsov, when asked what has made that unit so successful thus far. “We’re just trying to play for each other. We’re trying to execute our plan before the game. It’s very important when you execute every play; it’s very tough to play right now without the puck.
“When we have the puck and [we have] three forwards moving and two [defensemen] moving, it’s very tough to defend. That’s number one – don’t waste a shot. Just don’t shoot it right away. Just save the puck, play with the puck. You’re never going to give up the goal when you have the puck, right?”
The schedule does the Caps no favors early in the season; they’re starting out with six games in 10 nights, including four on the road. They must make three separate trips to play those four games, and the last two of the road tilts are of the back-to-back variety. On Monday in Tampa, they’ll knock off the second of an incredible total of 19 one-game road trips this season, accounting for nearly half of their entire road slate for 2017-18.
Washington plays eight of 12 on the road in October, and the Caps will face the specter of back-to-back games in each of the next three weekends, with five of those six contests coming on the road. Given the daunting task laid out in front of them, they’re happy to have four points in the bank after the first two games of the season.
“It’s a pretty tough stretch to begin the year,” says Washington winger Devante Smith-Pelly, “so starting off with two wins is obviously huge, and hopefully it snowballs the right way for us.”
Battered by a spate of injuries for most of last season, the Lightning put on a strong late season surge, but just missed out on a playoff berth. The Bolts are healthy once again, and most expect them to return to their previous perch as one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference this season.
“Going into the start of last year, I might have said they would be the favorite – us and them,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Lightning. “They would definitely be the favorite for me in the other [Eastern Conference] division last year and that will continue this year.
“They had a horrible season in terms of injuries and stuff, and they never really could pile up a long winning streak until really the end [of the season], and then it was a little bit too late.”
Tampa Bay made a significant trade in the offseason, shipping forward Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in exchange for 19-year-old blueliner Mikhail Sergachev. Sergachev was the ninth overall choice in the 2016 NHL Draft, and he was the second defenseman chosen in that summer’s draft.
Sergachev got into four games with the Canadiens last season, but he is embarking upon his first full pro season in 2017-18 after spending his junior career with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. He should have a bright NHL future ahead of him, but he has been getting third pairing minutes in the early going of ’17-18, averaging 16:28 a night in his first two games.
Tampa Bay brought in veteran winger Chris Kunitz and veteran blueliner Dan Girardi, but the biggest difference in the Bolts from last season to this should come down to health. Superstar center Steven Stamkos was limited to just 17 games last season, and only three members of the Lightning played in as many as 80 games in 2016-17. None played in all 82 games.
The Lightning started this season by splitting a home-and-home set with cross-state Atlantic Division rival Florida. The Lightning beat the Panthers 5-3 in Tampa on Friday night, but coughed up a third-period lead in a 5-4 loss to the Cats a night later in Sunrise.
“I think they’re a hell of a hockey team,” says Trotz of the Lightning. “They’ve got skill on all of their lines, they’ve got an all-world defenseman on the back end, they’ve got good goaltending, they’ve got speed, and they’ve got skill. They’ve got a lot of good elements. I think they’re a hell of a hockey club.”