Tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning involves two teams that have taken two different paths in the span of the last 10 months; one team through a rebuild and the other through more like a rehab.
The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning were in very different places last year at this time. The Capitals had the No. 1 offense in all of the NHL and were running away with both the division and the overall point lead in the NHL.
The Lightning were struggling and trailed the Capitals in the division by 22 points after 53 games last season. Ultimately, the Capitals would finish 41 points better than Tampa Bay and that was enough for Tampa’s owner, Jeff Vinik. Not wasting any time, Vinik fired head coach Rick Tocchet and GM Brain Lawton the day after last season ended.
In late May, Vinik hired a reluctant Steve Yzerman. Yzerman was waiting to take over one day in Detroit and reportedly turned Vinik down four times before finally accepting the job. Yzerman was given the title of vice president and general manager and went right to work.
In his first major move in becoming general manager of the struggling franchise, Yzerman stepped outside the NHL to hire Guy Boucher as the team's new coach in June.
Boucher had only one year of professional coaching experience, none on hockey's highest level. Yzerman was not deterred from making him the league's youngest coach, saying the 38-year-old had adapted to the players, personalities and level of play he encountered at every stage of his career.
About 900 miles to the north the Washington Capitals, loaded with talent and fresh off of winning the President’s Trophy as the best team in the NHL's regular season, had choked again in the playoffs. The Capitals for the seventh time in franchise history had lost another Game 7, this one in Round 1 to the upstart Montreal Canadians.
This loss was more stinging than any of the other sorry playoff losses the franchise had endured over their 36-year history. In the process the Caps became the first No. 1 seed to lose a three games to one lead and lose a playoff series to an eighth seed. One hundred and twenty-one regular season points and 313 goals went right out into the Potomac River.
The Caps had scored more goals than any NHL team since the mid '90s and had nothing to show for their regular season efforts.
While Washington was in shock and Alexander Ovechkin headed off to collect more postseason awards in Las Vegas, Steve Yzerman and Guy Boucher began to rebuild the Lightning. With all-world scorer Steven Stamkos and solid veterans like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier in place, Yzerman had more than enough of a solid core to build around.
Yzerman went to work as he traded defenseman Matt Walker and Tampa Bay's fourth-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for high-scoring winger Simon Gagne.
Other offseason acquisitions included the signing of forwards Sean Bergenheim, Dominic Moore and Marc-Antoine Pouliot along with defensemen Brett Clark, Randy Jones and Pavel Kubina, goaltender Dan Ellis and the re-signing of restricted free agent forward Steve Downie.
The Caps stood pat for the most part and decided that the playoff loss was a learning experience and the team would be better off for having gone through it. They did decide that they would need to play a more defensive-style game.
Flash forward to this season and to tonight where these two teams will play for the fifth time this season, with tonight's contest in Tampa.
The Washington Capitals currently trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by just five points for the division lead but in reality, they are worlds apart in the direction that each team is currently headed.
The Lightning are winners in six straight games and are fresh off shutting out the Eastern Conference's best team Tuesday night. A 4-0 solid, all-around victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. They now trail the Flyers by just two points for the overall lead in the East.
The Capitals continued their predictable play and showed no signs of snapping out of an offensive draught in losing 3-2 to the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout on Tuesday night in Washington. The loss was the Capitals' eighth straight overtime or shootout loss.
Yzerman's plan has come together a little quicker than expected. After beating the Flyers on Tuesday, the Bolts are just two points from leading the entire Eastern Conference. While the Caps are struggling on offense the Bolts are led by the NHL’s leading scorer, Steven Stamkos.
Skating with Samkos is the NHL’s fifth-leading scorer and No. 2 man in assists in the NHL, veteran Martin St. Louis. While Stamkos and St. Louis lead a potent offensive attack, the Bolts still had issues in net. Yzerman temporarily fixed that issue when he acquired 41-year-old netminder Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders on New Year’s Day.
Roloson has helped steady a leaky defense, as Tampa is now a plus-four in goal differential after being minus for most of the season. The defense is playing more confident in front of the veteran in net and why wouldn’t they be? Roloson is 8-3, with 2.02 goals against and a .932 save percentage since joining the Lightning.
He also has four shutouts with two of them coming against Washington in January. Tampa is one of the best home teams in the NHL with a home record of 17-4-2. Tonight’s game is the fourth of a record 12-game homestand.
The Capitals have not fared well lately, just 3-3-4 in their last 10 games. After losing just three times to Southeast divisional foes last year, the Capitals are 9-6-2 this season in the division. The Capitals also lost just 10 games all season long on the road last year and this season the Caps are already 11-10-3 away from DC.
The Caps offense has disappeared and so have the stars that play in it. Alex Ovechkin has just 19 goals through 53 games 15 fewer than this time last year. The Capitals have transitioned into a defensive team that plays a variation of the trap game.
Led by young blueliners like John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz the Capitals are ranked eighth averaging just 2.44 goals against per game. The Caps have not been ranked that high since 1999-00 season. Washington has allowed just 37 goals in its past 20 games but is just 9-4-7 scoring just 45 times.
Like the Lightning, the Caps are also getting stellar goaltending, except from three different sources this season. Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have combined for a 1.78 goals against average and a .944 save percentage over that span.
The Capitals have averaged just two goals per game over their last 26 games, scoring exactly 52 goals. Over that same 26-game span, the Capitals are 2-7-6 against teams currently in the playoff hunt and 7-2-2 against the teams ninth or worse in their conference.
The Lightning bring several hot players into tonight’s contest. Offseason acquisition Simon Gagne after scoring just three goals in the first 25 games has six in his last nine. Teddy Purcell who scored two goals in the win over Philadelphia has seven points in his last three games.
The Capitals understand the importance of tonight’s game. While the Lightning are home for eight more contests, the Capitals will play eight of their next 14 on the road, including a West Coast trip.
The Lightning may have Washington right where they want them tonight. A Lightning win opens up a comfortable seven-point lead in the division and could leave the Caps in total disarray. There are whispers about the job security of Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Organizationally speaking the Caps will be OK. They will get this figured out eventually but when they do it looks like the Lightning will be right there to play with them for a long time to come. I would say the odds of the Caps winning a Stanley Cup over Tampa this year are well, about the same as being struck by lightning.
A loss tonight by the Lightning and you could say they struggle to handle success at times. After shutting out Washington twice in January they were blown out the following game with Roloson being pulled in both, but that is about all you could say right now about Tampa.
A Caps loss tonight and the whispers get a little louder about job security in Bruce Boudreau's world. Remember the 2008-09 Penguins? They fired Michele Therrien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma with just 21 games remaining. All Byslma did was lead the Pens to a Stanley Cup win.
Nothing is out of the question when you're searching for answers like Caps GM George McPhee is.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said yesterday that “The reality is, it’s a big game for both teams. If I’m them, I’m saying 'Hey, listen. We can put this away.' If I’m us, I’m saying we want to fight right to the end. Seven or three (points back), it’s what they call a big four-pointer and that’s what it is."