Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Showdown for Southeast Supremecy

Alan ZlotorzynskiCorrespondent IIIMarch 7, 2011

With first place on the line in the NHL's Southeast division, the Washington Capitals travel to Tampa to play the second place Lightning tonight.

The meeting will be the teams' sixth and final contest this season but the game could also provide a peek into a potential playoff matchup should these two meet sometime from mid-April through late May.

With their overtime victory against the Florida Panthers yesterday, the Capitals come into the St. Pete Times Forum with a one-point lead over the Lightning in the race for the Southeast division crown.

The Capitals lead the season series 3-2, outscoring the Bolts 17-9 in the previous five meetings. The Caps blanked Tampa once (6-0), and immediately after acquiring goaltender Dwayne Roloson in January, the Bolts returned the favor twice. Tampa shutout the Caps in back-to-back affairs, 1-0, and 3-0.

Washington won the last contest 5-2 in early February and did so with an unusual style of play. The Caps spent a lot of time holding the puck, forcing the Lightning out of their customary 1-3-1 defense.

Once Tampa fell behind they were forced to chase, which opened up the ice, allowing the Caps some deep offensive possessions in Tampa's end. The Bolts never figured the system out and had it used against them to some degree in four of their next five games.

Tampa has lost three games in a row and six of their last nine. The Bolts are mired in their worst offensive draught of the season as they have scored two goals or less in seven of their last eight games.

A big reason for Tampa's offensive decline recently is the lack of production from the NHL's leading goal scorer, Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has just one goal in his last 11 games and has looked tired and frustrated at times in recent contests.

Stamkos took consecutive penalties in the second period of a 4-2 loss to the Canadians on Saturday and would have taken a third if the Habs did not score on the delay. On the flip side, team captain Vincent Lecavalier has eight goals in his last 11 games.

Dominic Moore has also chipped in with a pair of power-play goals in his last three contests.

The Lightning are 5-6-2 since concluding a six game winning streak on February 1. With a mark of 21-8-4 at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Lightning boasts the second best home record in the NHL this season.

"You battle a lot of adversity throughout the year and right now we're in the middle of it," Lightning forward Martin St. Louis said. "We've been facing adversity all year. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. We've been grinding it out all year."

Tampa ranks 25th in the league defensively,giving up 2.98 goals per game.No team ranked behind the Bolts will play in the post-season this year. Recognizing this Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman traded for St. Louis Blues captain and defenseman Eric Brewer back on Feb-18.

Brewer has a goal and is plus-five while averaging 20:27 of ice time for head coach Guy Boucher. Yzerman also acquired Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders back on New Year’s Day. Since coming to Tampa, the 41-year-old netminder is 12-8-1, with a GA of 2.71 and a .906 save percentage.

Roloson also has four shutouts, including a pair over the Capitals in back-to back meetings with Washington in January. Only New York Islander goalie Tommy Salo has shut the Caps out three times in one season, but with a shutout tonight Roloson can join him.

The Capitals are a hard team to figure out if you are looking at them on paper. If you never glanced at the standings, you would figure the Caps to be out of the playoff picture, much less the Southeast division leaders.

The Caps led the NHL with 313 goals last season and could potentially score 90 less this season. They have become a defensive juggernaut, allowing just 166 goals to date, or 2.44 goals per game, Washington is ranked seventh in the NHL but also acquired last minute help at the deadline last Monday.

The Caps traded for Panthers defenseman Dennis Wideman and then 50 minutes later acquired 17-year veteran Jason Arnott, from the New Jersey Devils. They Caps also claimed Marco Strum off waivers the Friday before the deadline.

All three players have made and impact but Arnott has made the biggest splash. He assisted on the game-tying goal last week in a win over the Islanders and scored the game winner on Thursday against the Blues.

The Capitals have not been a top-10 defensive team in the NHL since the '99-'00 season. Washington is 11-4-2 in their last 17 road games, and brings a four-game road-winning streak into Tampa Bay. They are 17-12-3 overall away from DC this season.

If the Lightning are going to beat Washington, they had better be ahead by more than a goal and they better not be trailing after two periods. The Capitals are 23-0-2 when leading after two periods. They have only allowed the opposition 46 third period markers, the second lowest total behind the Bruins.

Last evening's win over the Panthers marked the seventh straight capitals win by just one goal, moving their record to 19-7-10 in one -goal games. The capitals also do not panic when allowing their opposition to score first.

Washington has allowed the opposition to score first 39 times this season but lead the NHL with a 19-16-4 record when doing so. The Bolts should plan to jump on Washington early and often, as the Caps have been outscored 52-39 in the opening period. 

Washington's 39 first period goals are the lowest scored in the first period by six goals, this year in the NHL. As I said, on paper the Caps do not look like a well-rounded hockey team. In fact, even if you outshoot the Caps it does not mean you are going to win.The Caps are 16-6-6 when being outshot this season.

Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov has been out with an injury, which has allowed Washington’s other 22-year-old goalie, rookie Michael Neuvirth, to claim the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

Neuvirth has allowed just seven goals in his past four starts, but recent Hershey Bears call-up Braden Holtby may get the start against the Lightning since Neuvirth played last evening.

Holtby has been huge for Washington when called upon this year. He is 4-2-2 in eight appearances for the Capitals this season, and allowed just one goal in each of his three most recent starts with the Caps.

Washington is the only team in NHL history to have three goalies aged 22 years or younger record four or more victories in one season.

Special teams will be interesting to watch in this contest. The Lightning will pit their sixth ranked power play unit against Washington's fourth ranked penalty kill. With the extra man, the Caps are horrible. The NHL's top power play last season is ranked 24th this year.

The Lightning should be aware that if Washington does score a power play goal, they have a 20-3-4 record, and are 11-0-2 when it scores with the extra man but does not allow one. This is a big game for both teams and both coaches know that.

“I think the game will be a little more intense,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, in comparing Monday’s game with the Lightning to Sunday’s contest with the Cats. “It should be a good battle. I’m looking forward to it.” (nhl.com)

Guy Boucher is just looking for his guys to come out and match the intensity of the opponent, especially in this game. "Our urgency level was very low and theirs was very high. The teams that are chasing us right now seem to have more urgency," he said. That comment was made following Saturdays 4-2 loss to Montreal.

Tonight, Boucher must figure out how to snap his team out of their offensive slump against one of the toughest defenses in the NHL right now. If he does not, then his team could very well be the ones doing the chasing the rest of the season.

Be sure to join me live here on the Bleacher Report tonight, as I post live updates and talk about the showdown for first place in the Southeast division throughout the game. Coverage will kick off 15 minutes prior to the opening faceoff.

You can follow any updates throughout the day by checking on my Twitter page