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Caps Set For Opener

More than eight months after they last played a meaningful NHL game, the Washington Capitals are back on the ice tonight in Tampa Bay for the 2012-13 season opener against the Lightning. Here’s what we can tell you about tonight’s tilt:

Braden Holtby gets the start in goal for the Caps while Anders Lindback gets the nod for the Bolts. The 23-year-old Holtby has made just 21 regular season starts to date in his NHL career, but that’s more than twice as many as the 24-year-old Lindback’s career total of 10.

Both the Caps and the Bolts have designs on the Southeast Division title this season, and both will be relying on young goaltenders along the way. The Caps drafted and developed Holtby while the Lightning has been struggling to find a franchise goaltender since the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin, who left the Bay after helping the Bolts to the Stanley Cup championship in 2004.

The Lightning has employed 15 goalies since the last NHL lockout, the most in the league. In its 20-year history, the Lightning has drafted 21 goaltenders. Only one has played in as many as 100 NHL games. That distinction belongs to Fredrik Norrena, who played exactly 100 games in the NHL, all of them for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Norrena was Tampa Bay’s seventh-round (213th overall) choice in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

Caps defenseman Tom Poti will return to the lineup and will see his first NHL action in two years and a week. His last game came here in Tampa in a 3-0 Washington loss on Jan. 12, 2011. Poti spent the last two years trying to recover from and rehab what was originally believed to be a groin ailment. The injury was actually a fractured pelvis.

“It feels good,” says Poti. “It’s nice to know that all the hard work I’ve done over the last two years paid off. I’m just excited to be back with the guys, playing some games and having some fun again.”

Both teams will operate with seven defensemen tonight. Washington will scratch blueliner John Erskine and forwards Joey Crabb and Eric Fehr while the Lightning scratches will be defenseman Brendan Mikkelson and forwards Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Dana Tyrell.

For Caps coach Adam Oates, the decision to go with seven defensemen in his first game as an NHL head coach came down to a belief that his corps of eight defensemen might be a shade on the rusty side after the lengthy lockout.

“Given what we’ve talked about all week about conditioning,” answers Oates, when asked about why the Caps would be dressing seven defensemen. “It’s a hot building, it’s the first game, [it’s] a little extra emotional. I’m more worried about the defensemen getting tired. I just figured that if we had an extra pair of legs it would help them, take a couple of shifts off guys. And most of our defensemen – none of the defensemen played games.”

That’s an interesting point. Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, Erskine, Jack Hillen and Jeff Schultz all skated during the lockout, obviously. But none played actual games in a professional league on any continent. Ironically, Poti is the only one who has played in actual professional games in the last eight months. He got into two games with AHL Hershey – the first two games of his minor league career – while on a conditioning stint.

For Oates, tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts. He got his start as an NHL coach as an assistant to then-Lightning coach Rick Tocchet (a former teammate in Boston and Washington) in 2009-10.

Alex Ovechkin remains the Capitals’ captain, heading into his third full season with the “C” on his sweater. Oates has distributed the alternate captains’ “A”s to Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Brooks Laich.

Finally, Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik is returning to the town where he got his start in the NHL more than 20 years ago. The last member of the original 1992-93 Lightning team who is still active in the NHL, Hamrlik will take part in a special pre-game ceremony to commemorate the Bolts’ 20th anniversary prior to tonight’s opening face-off. He’ll be joined by several other members of that original Lightning squad, including ex-Caps defenseman Joe Reekie.