I've been sticking to a narrative in recent days regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning and their opponents; anywhere the Bolts went or whomever they played (sans the Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames) playoff implications were tied to the games.; in-or-out, playoff seeding, etc. For 16 teams in the National Hockey League, they've earned the right to vie for the supreme trophy in pro sports. And for the bulk of those clubs, where and who they'll be playing the first round of the playoffs is set too.
Except for the Lightning; they still contend to end the regular season in 2nd place in the Atlantic Division. That's what's on the line this afternoon at Verizon Center. Two points need to be secured and they will win home ice advantage in the divisional semifinal round (previously known as the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.) Suffering a loss to the Washington Capitals today grants that right to le bleu blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadiens, who took over 2nd place in the division last night with their 1-0 victory over the New York Rangers.
Yet there's something else I've been touching on as a narrative for far too many weeks; another narrative that was born some six weeks ago; the narrative of distraction. It started fresh off the Olympic break with rumors and speculation coming from New York and ending with a tectonic event of the Martin St. Louis - for - Ryan Callahan trade. It lingered in the days after the 2014 NHL trade deadline as the team adjusted to the new normal. It waned and dissipated until this past week when it reared its ugly, unwelcome head into the Bolts locker room again. The shocking arrest yesterday morning brings with it the scrutiny that comes with due process (by the law, by the media, by the team and by the league.) That scrutiny can throw even the most focused player off his game, so we'll see what type of affect this has on the roster starting this afternoon and following them along during the playoffs.
A lineup shift should be expected today to rest the banged up regulars and prep them for the road ahead through the gauntlet that is the NHL playoffs. The fact the Bolts are going to the playoffs may not be as surprising as the fact they've been flirting at the top of the Atlantic Division standings for the bulk of the season. I don't know of many Tampa Bay fans, myself included, who expected that with the reputation of the rough-and-tumble Northeast Division that was becoming the new home for the club. But 81 games later, they're still standing.
Enough of my lead-in rambling. The Washington Capitals are playing for pride today (and for that home crowd at Verizon Center.) Right wing Alex Ovechkin is this season's Rocket Richard trophy winner with 51 goals to his name, so congrats to him for that mark. Those tallies come with some interesting rubs, though: 24 of the goals were on the power play (where Washington is ranked #1 in the league with a 23.4% conversion rate) and another 10 were scored on empty nets. That doesn't diminish the luster from the goal light when it goes off, but Ovi's minus-35 rating does. Nick Backstrom, the prime Ovi enabler (51 assists) is minus-20; offensive defenseman Mike Green is minus-16. 13 players who have played for the Caps this season are either in the plus range or at even with plus/minus, while the big guns are in the red. And that lack of two-way responsibility has locked the Capitals out of the playoffs. Much like it did for Toronto this season, much like it made Tampa Bay look pathetic last season. Don't be mistaken and think the Caps ended up a pushover, it's just a more solid two-way game might have been what pushed the club over the top instead of keeping them just outside of the playoffs (they're currently at 89 points, two behind Detroit for the final wild card spot.)
No starting goalies have been named for either club and likely won't be until close to start time. Who would you rather have in net - Anders Lindback (who has been underused this season and needs more playing time) or true-rookie Kristers Gudlevskis, who had a pleasant NHL debut in Friday's 3-2 win over Union Army HC (aka Columbus) and who had notable big-game experience earlier this year (albeit on an international sized ice surface)? My guess is the rested Lindback, but rest hasn't meant anything to Jon Cooper when it comes to starting goalies, which may be ultimately what costs him the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.
For the Caps, the choice is between Jaroslav Halak (acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline), Braden Holtby or Phillip Grubauer. All three netminders are posting solid save percentage numbers (.913 for Holtby, .925 for Grubauer, .930 for Halak) and a generally consistent GAA (2.31 for Halak, 2.38 for Grubauer, 2.92 for Holtby.) While Holtby's numbers are inflated, go back to the two-way play and lack thereof by the Caps; being hung out to dry tends to wear a goalie down. It's not like either of those numbers are horrible either though.
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