TAMPA — Back on Nov. 11 when Steven Stamkos broke his right tibia, leaving the Tampa Bay Lightning without their best player, no one knew if the team, then sitting in first place in the Atlantic Division, would be able to weather his absence.
But it’s now been nearly two months since Stamkos was sidelined and the Lightning haven’t seen the drop off many expected. Tampa Bay is second in the Atlantic with 56 points and is rolling, winners in eight of its last 11, as it hosts the Capitals Thursday night.
“They’ve done a good job all year with him or without him,” John Carlson said. “They’re the type of team that they rely on everyone. Their first three lines at least are all great skaters, all can move the puck and when they’re clicking on all cylinders it makes it tougher on the opposing D.”
The Lightning are a fast-paced team that thrives in a transition game, precisely the type of opponent that can give Washington trouble if it doesn’t take care of the puck in the neutral zone and on the offensive blueline. Any giveaway can spark an odd man rush in the opposite direction and, with or without Stamkos, Tampa Bay has the offensive ability to convert on those chances. In this last 11 game stretch the Lightning have outscored their opponents 35-21.
While the Capitals ultimately triumphed in a 6-5 shootout win the last time these two teams met on Dec. 10, they don’t want to get caught up trading chances with Tampa Bay.
“When there’s teams that have that kind of speed you can’t let them get that going. We’ve got to make it easier on our d that they don’t have to be taking 3-on-2s back all game,” Eric Fehr said. “We’ve got to take a little bit of the risk out of our game and play a little bit simple.”
A big part of that, Fehr added, is the basic tenet of getting the puck deep in the offensive zone and working the play down low. Washington hasn’t been able to do that consistently this season, though.
“We keep saying it but not always doing it. It’s important for us we’ve got to get pucks behind their D,” Fehr said. “Our team gets in trouble when we turn over pucks at the blueline and our D aren’t able to gap up and other teams start coming with speed that’s when we get in trouble.”
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop has been placed on injured reserve with a sprained right wrist so expect them to start Anders Lindback (4-8-1, 3.11 goals-against average, .882 save percentage) against Washington.