The Washington Capitals are a little more than halfway through the regular season, yet the magnitude of Friday's game against Tampa Bay is such that veteran forward Matt Bradley is calling it the most significant of the season.
The Lightning not only is second in the Eastern Conference but also leads Washington in the Southeast Division by five points. A loss would drop the Capitals seven points behind with 29 games to play, including the final game of their series against the Lightning in Tampa on March 7.
"It definitely starts with Friday night," Bradley said. "If we can win that game, that kind of brings us closer to them, and then we can build off that."
The Capitals are in the middle of a potentially season-defining three-game stretch against Montreal, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. The Canadiens rallied from two goals down to beat Washington last night in a shootout, 3-2, issuing another unpleasant reminder of the Capitals' first-round playoff exit to them last season.
The Lightning, meantime, is where Washington was last season at this time, leading the division and playing like a team poised to advance deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tampa Bay also is in the early stages of a 12-game home stand.
And then there's arch nemesis Pittsburgh, which draws the ire of Capitals fans more than any other opponent and has redemption in mind following a 3-1 loss to Washington in the Winter Classic.
"I think it's pretty important," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Friday night. "They've got a five-point lead right now, and they've got the next nine games I think at home, so it's up there."