March 18 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 45-17-8
Tampa Bay Lightning 34-27-9
Washington takes to the road for a Saturday night date with the Lightning in Tampa Bay. The Caps are in the midst of a stretch in which they’re playing five of six games at the friendly confines of Verizon Center, with Saturday’s game against the Bolts being the lone road tilt during that span. Washington will also be aiming to end a three-game regulation losing streak on the road, its longest of the season.
The Caps have dropped five of their last six (1-4-1) overall and are coming to Tampa on the heels of Thursday’s 2-1 overtime loss at the hands of the Nashville Predators. Brett Connolly staked the Caps to a 1-0 lead over Nashville with his 15
th goal of the season midway through the first, but Washington wasn’t able to generate much in the way of quality scoring chances over the final 40 minutes of Thursday’s game.
“We had a good start,” say Connolly. “We’ve been talking about that, we wanted to get off to a good start and we did that. But we just kind of let them hang around a little too much. We had some chances to score.
“We were good; we weren’t bad, but we weren’t good enough tonight. It goes to overtime and then it’s anyone’s game from there. They get a two-on-one, they make a good shot, and that’s the game.”
Washington has now lost two of its last three games at home (1-1-1) and three of the Capitals’ last four losses at Verizon Center have been by identical 2-1 scores, one in regulation, one in a shootout and one in overtime.
“The last two games, I think we played a lot harder than we did in California,” says Connolly. “We’ve been more engaged and we’re a little sharper mentally. Now is a tough time of the year. Teams are tightening up, and there’s not much [time and space].”
Thursday’s game marked the seventh time in the last eight games that Washington has failed to score as many as three goals.
“Teams are fighting for points, and they’re going to play you defensively pretty strong,” notes Connolly. “There is not a lot going on the last little bit, but we’ll look at the positives and we’ll move on and get ready for Tampa here. They’re playing well right now, so we’ve got to bring a good game over there, too. So it doesn’t get any easier from here.”
“We talked about this,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We’ve got to get a little bit more of a shot mentality. We passed up some good looks [Thursday] night. We had a couple of good looks, and we were looking for that extra play. We talked about that even on the last road trip.
“Everybody is tightening down, defensively. Everybody we’ve played is in a playoff hunt for the most part, and they’re tightening down.”
In the aftermath of the loss to Nashville, the Capitals reassigned winger Jakub Vrana to AHL Hershey. That roster move makes way for the return of forward Andre Burakovksy to the Washington lineup for the first time since Feb. 9 when he sustained a hand injury while blocking a shot during a 6-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Verizon Center.
At the time of the injury, the prognosis was for an absence of four to six weeks, so Burakovsky is returning to action right on time. Vrana totaled three goals – all on the power play – and three assists for six points in 21 games with Washington this season. Vrana earned the lone assist on Washington’s only goal of the game in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Predators.
“I’m happy,” says Trotz. “I’m happy to see him back. Nothing against Jake or anything, but you want to see Andre back.”
Burakovsky’s return brings Washington to peak health, and reunites what had been one of the team’s most effective lines during one of its most effective stretches of the season. Burakovsky had been skating on the right side of a line with Connnolly and Lars Eller.
“We’ll see [Saturday],” says Burakovsky, asked how long it might take to rekindle chemistry with his linemates. “They’ve been playing with Vrana and a couple of other guys for a little bit here, abd obviously I’ve been out for five weeks or whatever, so it’s going to be a little bit new for me, too, to come in and play.
“But I’m going come back quick. [Friday] I felt really good. I’ve been working hard with [strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish], doing a lot of exercises and hard skating so I’m in really good shape and I’m ready to go.”
The Lightning is embroiled in a tight and competitive scramble with a handful of other teams for the final available playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bolts hosted Toronto on Thursday night, and with a regulation win over the Leafs in that game, Tampa Bay would have moved into a three-point lead over Toronto for that final playoff berth.
But Toronto lashed Tampa Bay by a 5-0 count, leaving the Lightning tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind the Maple Leafs. Toronto holds a game in hand on both Tampa Bay and New York.
When the season started back in October, Tampa Bay was seen as one of a few elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and one that certainly had a chance to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup final, as Tampa Bay did two years ago when it came up short against Chicago in the Cup final. But the Bolts have been battered by injuries to several key players, and a few others have underachieved. As a result, the Lightning is now scrambling to put together a strong finishing kick that would deliver the team’s fourth straight playoff berth.
The Bolts are 12-3-3 in their last 18 games, a torrid run that has only managed to put them on the cusp of that playoff berth. With a dozen games remaining and a few other teams also hovering around that last spot, the Lightning may need to remain on a roll the rest of the way.
Thursday’s whitewashing at the hands of the Leafs halted a four-game Tampa Bay winning streak and stopped a streak in which the Bolts had earned at least a point in six straight games (5-0-1). Five of the Lightning’s last six victories have come by the margin of a single goal, with half of the six requiring the Bolts to work more than 60 minutes to pick up the two points.
Tampa Bay received some good news on Friday when Steven Stamkos participated in a full practice for the first time since he went down with a torn meniscus in his right knee in November. Bolts coach Jon Cooper cautioned that Stamkos is not ready to return yet, but the veteran sniper is heartened by being able to take this next step toward an eventual return to the lineup.