Lightning set to test mettle vs. Capitals

NHL Hockey

Almost five months removed from their last meaningful game, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in a very similar position now as they prepare to square off against a Metropolitan Division power.

Coach Jon Cooper and his Tampa Bay players were at their home rink preparing to play the Philadelphia Flyers on March 12 before the NHL paused its season due to the growing concerns over COVID-19.

The Lightning get back to business on Monday in Toronto when they face the Washington Capitals as part of a round-robin tournament to determine the Eastern Conference’s seeding of its top four clubs. The Boston Bruins and Flyers round out the quartet.

Tampa Bay trailed Atlantic Division leader Boston by eight points at the start of the break, but the Lightning certainly didn’t look rusty in their lone tune-up for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They routed the Florida Panthers 5-0 in Thursday’s exhibition contest behind a standout performance from their top line, strong defense and stout netminding by reigning Vezina Trophy recipient Andrei Vasilevskiy. The netminder is a finalist for the award again this season.

“We’ve got the luxury of getting in three more games before we play for keeps,” Cooper said. “So getting looks at guys in different situations is what we’re doing. It’s the same up and down the lineup whether it’s the (defensemen) or the forwards.”

The Lightning will be working in captain Steven Stamkos (lower body) in the round-robin tournament, which features one game against each of the conference’s top teams. Stamkos returned to practice Friday, and the goal is to get him on the top line with Brayden Point and reigning Hart Trophy recipient Nikita Kucherov.

The Capitals’ concern will be in net, where former Vezina Trophy recipient Braden Holtby was 25-14-6 in 48 games. However, his durability in the playoffs will be of major importance for coach Todd Reirden.

Washington announced Friday that backup Ilya Samsonov, 23, had failed a physical and did not travel with the team to Toronto. The rookie was injured back home in Russia during the hiatus and is expected to be ready when next season opens.

Czech Republic native Vitek Vanecek, who has never played in the NHL, will serve as the team’s backup goaltender.

Ovechkin appears to be in top form after collecting two goals and an assist in Wednesday’s 3-2 exhibition win over Carolina.

“He put the work in for four months and had his personal trainer with him the entire time,” Reirden said. “It’s great to see someone like that — that puts the time and the effort in — get rewarded in those situations.”

The teams faced off three times in the regular season, with the Capitals winning all three matches against the Lightning. Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov netted the game-winning goals in the first and third meetings.

In the second contest on Dec. 14 , the Caps scored four times in the third period to break a tie en route to a 5-2 victory.

–Field Level Media

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