When the Capitals play the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight at Amalie Arena they will see a familiar sight.
Yes, the two teams met last year in an epic Eastern Conference Final series that went seven games and eventually led to Washington’s first Stanley Cup. That’s a natural story angle. But this year’s Lightning are chasing history, too, and that is something the Capitals know all about.
Tonight’s game (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) is the first of three in 15 games. The two teams have not yet met this season as the NHL crams a playoff-worthy series of games into the final month. But they are in distinctly separate realms in the standings.
The Capitals (42-22-7, 91 points) are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They are 15-5-1 since returning from the All-Star break on a seven-game losing streak. They are in a fight for a fourth consecutive division title, but should comfortably make the playoffs.
Tampa Bay, however, has already clinched a playoff spot. They needed just 68 games to tie the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks for second-fastest clinching. The only team better? The 2009-10 Capitals, who won the Presidents’ Trophy and went into the playoffs as heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
The Lightning (54-13-4, 112 points) are one win away from setting the franchise record for a single season. They need to go 8-3-0 to match the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most wins in a season (62). They would have to collect 20 of a possible 22 points to reach the gold standard of 132 points set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.
But while those Red Wings and those Canadiens went on to win the Cup, it is the 2009-10 Capitals and 2008-09 Sharks that should serve as a warning sign to Tampa Bay. Neither of those teams made it out of the first round. Washington was one of the best offensive teams of the salary-cap era at 3.82 goals-per-game. That’s exactly what Tampa Bay is averaging now. But Washington lost to Montreal, the No. 8 seed, in seven games because goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped everything it could throw at him up 3-1 in the series and looking for the clincher.
The Sharks didn’t even make it that far. They were dropped in six games by the Anaheim Ducks, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference that season, and lost the concluding game 4-1.
None of that to say the same fate is in store for the Lightning. They have 20 more goals than any other team this year (277). They have the fourth-fewest goals allowed (187). They are a deep, complete team led by captain Steven Stamkos and likely Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, who tops the NHL with 115 points. Goalie Andrei Vasilevsky has a .929 save percentage, which is second overall.
The core of Tampa Bay’s team played for the Cup in 2015 against the Chicago Blackhawks and have been to the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018 and lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins and last spring to the Capitals.
“They’re obviously tearing the league up, there’s no question,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “They’re going to want to make a statement with how it ended for them last year so we’ve got to be ready to go. They’re obviously a dangerous team and it’s going to be a good test for us, a good test for them. Can’t wait to get there and get that game going.”
No lineup changes
The Capitals will stick with the lineup they used in a 5-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday. Chandler Stephenson will center the fourth line with Travis Boyd on the right and Andre Burakovsky on the left. Otherwise the top nine remains the same as it’s been.
Only defensemen Dan Girardi (lower-body injury) and Anton Stralman (lower-body injury) are likely out tonight. Both have missed the past three games.
Nicklas Backstrom needs just one assist to reach 50 for the sixth year in a row. Only 25 players have ever posted that long a streak and 23 of them are in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the other two (Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton) are not yet eligible. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, is still pushing for his eighth 50-goal season. He has not had a goal the past four games and is stuck on 46, which remains four ahead of Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl (42).
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