For Washington Capitals, matchup against Tampa Bay Lightning is close to a must-win game

Capitals center Brooks Laich battled Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik earlier in the week. Friday night presents a different challenge for Washington: Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay.
Capitals center Brooks Laich battled Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik earlier in the week. Friday night presents a different challenge for Washington: Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay. (Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:12 AM

Members of the Washington Capitals often hesitate to magnify the importance of any single game, but with 30 remaining in the regular season they understand that Friday's contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning is pretty close to a must-win game.

The Capitals trail Tampa Bay by five points for the top spot in the Southeast Division heading into the second-to-last meeting between the two teams . Win and the gap shrinks to a more manageable three, lose and it expands to seven, with the Lightning scheduled to play the next eight games at home, where they are 17-4-2 this season.

"It's getting that way," Mike Knuble said when asked if Friday's game was a must-win. "As much as you don't want to say that, it's sort of getting that way to keep up with the pace. Nobody's really losing games. They become must-wins. It's probably been awhile since we had a must-win in the regular season. We've got to consistently get on track and win games it's the only way we're going to stay in the race."

Washington enters the matchup having lost six of its past 10 - with four defeats coming in overtime or a shootout - and still searching for a complete game.

The most maddening and perhaps inexplicable part of the Capitals' recent struggles has been their inability to build off of successful play, particularly from period to period.

The latest example came in Monday's 3-2 shootout loss to Montreal. In the opening 20 minutes against the Canadiens, Washington executed its plan to near perfection, but rather than continuing to dump the puck into their offensive zone, the Capitals seemed to lose focus and take unnecessary risks that resulted most often in a loss of possession.

While Washington grapples with finding its rhythm, the Lightning, after defeating the East-leading Philadelphia Flyers, 4-0, earlier this week, are on a six-game winning streak for the first time since late February of their Stanley Cup-winning season in 2004. That was also the last year that the Lightning won the Southeast Division title.

"It's another statement game for us. It's another top team in the league and you want to get some separation between us and Washington," Lightning forward Teddy Purcell told reporters in Tampa on Thursday. "We shut them out the past two times so you know they are going to come out pretty hard. It's going to be a fun game, but we are ready for it."

Tampa Bay is far from the team that the Capitals posted 12 goals against in the first two games between the clubs this year, as is evidenced by the Lightning's pair of shutout wins in the most recent meetings with Washington. The Lightning hasn't allowed more than two goals in any of the past six games, while getting goals from the NHL's leading scorer in Steven Stamkos along with role players like Purcell.

Then there's the addition of veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson, 41, who is 8-3-0 since joining the Lightning in early January from the New York Islanders. Roloson already has four shutouts for Tampa Bay, including two against the Capitals.

"They believe in their system and they're doing it to a 'T,' " Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "And they believe in their goalie now, whereas maybe before they didn't believe in the goalie. Where they thought they had to get out there and be more aggressive, now Roloson has had four . . . shutouts since he got there. They're a confident team and rightfully so."

When Washington takes to the ice against Tampa Bay it will mark the first time the Capitals have faced a Southeast Division foe ahead of them in the standings since Nov. 6, 2008. While holding a lead might minimize pressure in the standings, the Capitals believe the extra drive to chase the Lightning for a better seed in the playoffs will ultimately have a positive impact while forcing them to maintain focus.

"I think it keeps us honest right now," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said of the challenge of not being the top team. "We're fighting for that spot and it's a good challenge for us. It builds character for our hockey team. . . . We haven't been in this position in the last couple of years, I think mentally it's good for our team."

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