The Tampa Bay Lightning seemed unfazed by their rough start this week, and an opportunity sits in front of them at the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions were completely outmatched against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs in Monday’s 6-2 defeat.
NHL top goal-scorer Auston Matthews and shifty Mitchell Marner each logged four-point showings in the win, with Matthews — who posted a hat trick — taking over and providing the go-ahead tally to break a 2-all tie in the second period.
Toronto closed out the Lightning (43-19-7, 93 points) with four unanswered goals, elevating the club to second place in the Atlantic Division and leaving the champs fourth and in the first wild-card spot — nine points ahead of the second wild card, the Capitals.
After playing Washington (37-22-10, 84 points), the Lightning return home Friday to play the surging Boston Bruins, who have the same 93 points as Tampa Bay, but are third in the Atlantic Division team via one more ROW (Regulation plus Overtime Wins).
Top Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman avoided overemphasizing the battles with the high-scoring Maple Leafs, Capitals or Bruins. He is all about focusing internally.
“They’re divisional opponents, we’re right there with them,” Hedman said after the Lightning went 2-1-1 on a four-game homestand. “Measuring-stick games … I don’t know. We know what we’re capable of doing. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side. Toronto, Boston, Washington … it doesn’t really matter.”
All eight Eastern Conference teams currently in playoff position have been there since January, exposing the major chasm between the conference’s upper and lower halves.
As the performances of Detroit, Columbus and the New York Islanders continued to be mediocre, the East became all about playoff positioning rather than chasing a postseason berth.
The Capitals own a comfortable position in the second wild-card spot, and the likelihood of them facing Tampa Bay in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs essentially is non-existent.
Still, facing the two-time defending champions for the third and final time in the regular season is a solid yardstick.
In their first two encounters with Tampa Bay, the Capitals lost 2-1 in overtime on Oct. 16 in a home game that was notable because of a serious groin injury to Lightning star Nikita Kucherov.
The right wing had surgery and returned to the lineup on Jan. 6 after a 32-game absence.
Washington dropped another one-goal game, 3-2 at Tampa two weeks later despite goals from Brett Leason and Conor Sheary.
Most recently, the Capitals fell 5-1 against the visiting Minnesota Wild. Coach Peter Laviolette said he would like to see his club open the game on a better note after surrendering two goals in the first 97 seconds.
“Obviously, the start,” the second-year Washington coach said. “It might’ve been the only two chances we gave up, but they were mistakes, they were early on, and it’s not the way you want to start the game.”
Just 2-4-0 in their past six games, the Capitals saw the debut of Johan Larsson on Sunday. The left wing was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes for a 2023 third-round pick on March 21.
Larsson played on a line with Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd and was plus-1 in 10:48 of ice time.
–Field Level Media