Where: Verizon Center, Washington, District of Columbia
When: 7 PM EST | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio)
Opponent Coverage: Japers' Rink
Part of realignment's allure was the potential to build rivalries through the playoffs. Having to have heated series' with divisional foes would add to the value of games and draw in interest.
And what is left out of the discussion is how the media will shape things. The narrative itself can add so much allure and mystique to a rivalry. It's part of what drive the great rivalries in pro sports in North America. It's also what kills rivalries; when the story isn't the contest but the failure or success. Ignoring the fact it was two teams playing and latching on to one over the other in order to milk the demographics of the larger region.
I'd like to say the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning had a rivalry; a grudge existed between the two teams on ice. Both teams have had their ups and downs as Southeast Division neighbors, but both clubs also tended to raise their game against each other.
But the idea of Tampa Bay and Washington as rivals isn't as sexy as Washington and Pittsburgh. Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby (the rivalry that is a media construct alone) is bigger than Stamkos/Ovi, St. Louis/Ovi, anyone-else vs. someone-else.
That's part of why the 2011 NHL playoff failing of the Washington Capitals was stressed more than the Tampa Bay Lightning sweeping the Washington Capitals; one narrative will reach more people and rub emotions, one narrative riles people up in disappointment while the other will not draw in readers and viewers from the northeast corridor.
It's not much of a lost rivalry in the grand scheme of things, but it feels like an overlooked and underappreciated grudge between eh two clubs that's become irrelevant with thanks to realignment.
At any rate, the Washington Capitals are doing just what the NHL wants - they're competing with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metro Division. In fact, they're 2nd in the division to the Pens, who have 9 more points in the standings at this point than the Caps, who stand at 34 points, that's two behind Tampa Bay in the overall Eastern Conference. Alex Ovechkin is once again showing that he's one of the dominant goal-scorers in the NHL with 22 so far this season. That offensive potency is part of why the Caps power play is 5th in the league with nearly 23% proficiency.
Defensively, however... I dunno what to think here. Braden Holtby, tonight's starter in net for the Caps, has a 2.71 GAA despite a high save percentage (.923). The Caps are giving up the 2nd most shots per game in the entire NHL with 34.9. They're scoring more goals on average (2.87) than their opponent, but not by much at all (2.77 allowed). That's something that has to be rectified as the season goes on, because facing a stronger defense and a solid opposing goalie, and offensive prowess will be muted (unless opportunity comes to them on the power play).
This leads us to tonight. Tampa Bay, the banged up, broken down, keep-on-keeping-on team that they are, would be in better shape to counter the Capitals if the aforementioned injuries weren't dominating the team. Head coach Jon Cooper was line-juggling again during this morning's practice at V3erizon center, trying to find a spark and trying to play to strengths. The line combinations that got my attention (after being reported byDamian Cristodero) was the trio of J.T. Brown, Nate Thompson, and Nikita Kucherov. Brown plays a strong defensive game as has been noted this season in his stint with the Lightning since being recalled from the Syracuse Crunch. Kucherov, as well, has been very responsible despite his offensive prowess (which hasn't been on display much since his NHL debut against the New York Rangers some weeks ago). He's a plus-three during his 6 game tenure in the NHL so far... Thompson rounding them out... Well, no brainer really. Nate is a jack-of-all-trades center and usually tasked with taking on opponents top lines.
Cooper is also reuniting the line of Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell. While all three are running cold, the two wingmen are on ice for the most part.
Richard Panik will be back in the lineup while Dana Tyrell will sit.
Ben Bishop will start in net for the Lightning, and this is why the Lightning offense needs to get going; Bishop has a 1.98 GAA at current, a .934 save percentage... If Ben stops shots he has to (and more), then it's up to the other skaters to put shots on the opposing net. Holtby is holding his own for the Capitals, that's been stated above... But this point goes beyond tonight's contest. The Lightning are in the bottom third of the NHL in shots per game, only averaging 27.7 shot attempts nightly. Shot quality does matter, but so does taking a chance and not over-passing. All too often, and this has been a problem for years, the Bolts get caught up in trying to throw an opposing netminder out of position with tic-tac-toe passing/shooting... And all too often, they get caught in passing and never get off a shot.
No shots, no goals. No goals in a close game and you've just sold out your goalie who kept you in it. Saturday's game in Winnipeg (and how the Lightning sold out the effort of Anders Lindback) is a great example of that.
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation