The Washington Capitals 2013 season got off to a less-than-stellar start Saturday night. The Caps were pretty thoroughly outplayed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 6-3 loss in the season opener for both teams (ESPN).
It was not the sort of start Caps' fans had in mind and, clearly, not the kind of game new head coach Adam Oates will look back on fondly many years from now.
The Caps gave up three power-play goals on seven opportunities, were outshot 34-30, were out-hit 27-16 and even lost the faceoff battle 40-34.
In short, the Caps were beaten in all phases of the game, and there is not much more one can say about that.
With that loss now in the books, one has to look ahead in the schedule to determine the games that will, in all likelihood, define this team's season.
Last week, I wrote an article in which I looked at the Caps' 2013 schedule and provided some suggestions as to five games on that schedule that all Capitals fans would want to watch.
This article is a bit of a continuation of that piece, with the added bonus that several teams now have two games under their belts, and one can, to a certain extent, tell which teams just might be a bit better—or worse—than originally anticipated.
For your consideration, here are the three games on the docket that, even at this early stage of the campaign, could very well define the team's season.
After a disappointing season opener, the Washington Capitals are likely chomping at the bit to get back on the ice and get the season back on track.
They won't have to wait long. The Caps' home opener on Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets is a game that could define how things go this season.
For the Jets, their season opener did not go as planned either, as the Jets dropped their home opener 4-1 to the Ottawa Senators.
The Jets started the game strong but could not maintain the momentum. Still, Winnipeg played pretty well as they out-hit the Senators 29-21 and also won the faceoff battle.
But Ottawa outshot the Jets 37-28 and really controlled the third period when they broke open a tight game with two critical goals.
So, now the Jets come to D.C. also sitting at 0-1 for a pretty critical early-season game with the Caps.
For Washington, they must fix several issues that were problematic in the opener against the Lightning.
Defensively, the Caps had far too many lapses, and they hung Braden Holtby out to dry too often. Whether it was due to rustiness or poor conditioning, it is something the Caps need to fix—and fix fast.
The Caps must also stay out of the penalty box. The team looked a but undisciplined at times against Tampa Bay, a far cry from what we saw during the playoffs last spring. The Caps simply cannot give any team seven power-play opportunities in a game and expect to be successful.
The Caps must also try to get Alexander Ovechkin on the scoresheet. The captain was held without a point. Worse than that, he was held without a shot after the first period. That is simply unacceptable.
There was some good to take from the Tampa Bay game though: Joel Ward scored two goals, meaning he is already one-third of the way to his total goals scored from last season.
Free-agent acquisition Wojtek Wolski had a goal, and new center Mike Ribeiro played a strong game. So despite the defeat, there are some definite things for the Caps to build on.
The Caps did not fare well against the Jets last season as they dropped four of the six meetings between the two teams.
If that trend continues Tuesday night, the Caps could find themselves in a troubling hole very early in this shortened season.
So, in only the second game of the season, the Caps will face a real defining moment.
There will be very little love to be found on Valentine's Day when the Capitals and Lightning meet again.
After the subpar effort the Caps put forth in the season opener on Saturday, the rematch in Tampa will be a key moment for the Caps.
It will be the 14th game of the season for the Caps, so the rematch between the two divisional rivals will take place just after the one-quarter point of the season.
By then, the fortunes of both teams might be coming into sharper focus.
Obviously, the Caps will have to put forth a solider effort than they did in the season opener. It will be a great challenge for Washington, as they will once again have to go into Tampa and find a way to excel in the not-so-friendly confines of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Caps have frequently had trouble doing well in Tampa. Last season, the Caps dropped all three meetings with the Lightning that were played in Tampa.
That is why the game on Valentine's Day will be so important. Will the Caps be able to perform well in Tampa? Will they learn to be a more disciplined team and not the same team that had too many defensive lapses and committed far too many penalties?
And what about the Lightning? The team struggled mightily to keep the puck out of the net last season. In fact, the Lightning ranked dead last with a horrid 3.39 goals against average a season ago.
Even though they won on Saturday, giving up three goals is dangerously close to the rate at which the Lightning were getting scored upon last season—and any Tampa Bay fan will tell you how well that worked out.
Consistently giving up three goals a game is be a very good recipe for success.
What happens when the Caps and Lightning meet again on Valentine's Day could go a long way towards determining how the Southeast division will ultimately be decided.
During the offseason, much of the discussion centering around the Southeast division seemed to focus on the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, two teams that made significant moves to improve their teams via free agency.
Meanwhile, the defending Southeast division champions, the Florida Panthers, were largely overlooked.
After the Panthers' opening-night performance, the so-called experts might have been saying one simple word.
The Panthers, at least for one game, actually looked quite a bit stronger than they were a season ago. They simply dominated the Hurricanes, 5-1, in the season opener for both teams Saturday.
Leading the way for the Panthers was Jonathan Huberdeau, the No. 3 overall pick from the 2011 NHL draft, who made his professional debut against the Canes.
Huberdeau scored a goal on his first NHL shot ever and added two more assists. Now that is what I call an impressive debut.
The rout of the Hurricanes sends a strong message to the rest of the Southeast division that dethroning the Panthers this season will be far easier said than done.
It wasn't all good for the Panthers, as they were badly outshot 42-25 by the Hurricanes 42-25 and out-hit 28-22. Will the Panthers continue to be able to rely on great goaltending from Jose Theodore to bail them out? Only time will tell.
For the Capitals, they will get their first taste of the Panthers on February 9, when the Panthers come to Verizon Center. That will be a big test early on.
But the game on April 6 in Sunrise figures to be a crucial game and might very well be the defining moment of the regular season.
It will be the final meeting between the two teams, and it will be the Caps' 38th game of the season. The Caps will have only 10 games left after this final game against a Panthers team that looks to be even better than last season.
The Caps took four of the six games from the Panthers last season, but based on the way the two teams played in their respective season openers, it might be very difficult for the Caps to repeat that this year.
But it sure looks like this game on April 6 could, conceivably, decide the Southeast division title.