Well here's a look ahead to tonight's Caps - Lighting game at the Verizon Center. The game features the resurgent and "Hot" Washington Capitals at home taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning, who despite an up & down/inconsistent start are only two points behind the Caps. The Lightning are coming off a 2-1 win in regulation in Philadelphia Saturday night. The Caps lineup has a few question marks and possible holes in it but they are the same ones as the Caps had on Saturday night when they faced and beat the NY Rangers. Shoanne Morrisonn, Sergei Federov, and Chris Clark's status for the game are all unknown. Chris Clark is a possible return to the lineup. However, based on comments attributed to Coach Bruce Boudreau after Sunday's optional practice would have to result in listing Morrisonn and Federov as doubtful against the Bolts. However, the biggest storyline tonight won't be who plays and who doesn't for the Caps. It's going to be who is between the pipes for the Lightning: former Cap Olie Kolzig. Rumor has it there will be a video tribute to Kolzig before the puck drops. Then as Tarik El-Bashir reported, Coach Bruce Boudreau's team will go try and put more pucks past him then his new teammates get by his former back-up Brent Johnson. ""I like Olie, I think we all like Olie, and the people in Washington love Olie and rightfully so," Boudreau said "But when the puck drops, I hope we score more against them than they score against us. .... I hope if he's starting [the fans] give him the round of applause I think he deserves and the recognition he deserve. But when the puck drops, it's our team versus their team, and we want to win." So how do the matchups look tonight?
Intangibles: Even with the emotion a start by Kolzig and coming off the 2-1 Win Saturday night in Philadelphia, you have to give the intangibles solidly to the Capitals. The Caps are unbeaten in regulation at home this season and actually haven't lost in regulation at home in 13 games going back to last season. The crowds at "the Phone Booth" have done nothing but energize the Caps since last February and Kolzig''s "homecoming" will only drive more local hockey fans to attend tonight's game. Finally, you have to believe that if Alexander Ovechkin is going to "come out of his slump" he'd love to do it while facing division rivals Lecavalier and Saint Louis. Also the Johnson - Kolzig matchup also has to motivate both teams but the Caps even more so than the Bolts. Also look for Steve Eminger to work hard to show the Caps they should have kept him as he has every game since they traded him to the Flyers, but the young Caps defenseman like Jeff Schultz and Mike Green will be responding in kind as well.
Forwards: The Caps lines for tonight's game are likely to be similar to Saturday's lines: 1) Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin, 2) Fleischmann-Nylander (or Steckel)-Kozlov 3) Laich-Steckel (or Nylander) -Fehr (or Clark) and 4) Brashear-Gordon-Bradley. Though look for the "fourth" or energy line to get almost as many shifts as the second or third lines. These lines matchup pretty well against the Bolts, since even when you factor in the relatively low scoring games the Caps have participated in during their last four games, the Caps have lit the scoring lamp 10 more times so far this season than the Lightning. Key Matchups: Ovechkin/Backstrom - Lecavalier/Saint Louis. Lecavalier leads the Bolts scoring with 6 goals and 11 points; Saint Louis has 3 goals and 10 points. Ovechkin has 2 goals and 8 points, and Backstrom has yet to score this season and has 5 assists. Add Semin to the first line with his 11 goals and 21 points and it doesn't matter who the Bolts pair with their dynamic duo as long as Ovie and Nick have at least the kind of solid performance they've shown these past five games. Also given the mediocre +/- numbers of all of Tampa Bay’s forwards except Lecavalier and Vaclav Prospal and it's not hard to imagine the possibility of both Ovechkin and Backstrom breaking their slumps tonight. As for lines 2 and 3 looking at the pairings there the key guy the Caps have to contain is likely to be Prospal. The Lightning's second line center is third on the team in scoring with 3 goals and 7 assists and has been looking every bit as potent in a Bolts uniform as he did during last years playoffs when he was wearing a Flyers' sweater. That said even with the relatively lackluster production of the Capitals second and third lines, they have been more productive than in the past two seasons and this balance is a true asset. When this fact is joined with the production numbers of Tampa Bay's second through fourth lines, there is little doubt that the current advantage in this category rests with the Capitals.
Defense: Assuming the Caps pairings will once again be the same as Saturday Night: a) Tom Poti - Tyler Sloan, b) Jeff Schultz - Mike Green and c) John Erskine - Milan Jurcina, the matchups look like this. Tom Poti - Andrej Meszaros: Meszaros is a third year pro and arguably the Bolts #1 D-man and minute muncher. He was +/- +5 through 82 games last season with the Ottawa Senators, he also had 9 goals and 32 assists. It might be better to compare him to Mike "Game Over" Green given where each of them are in their career but a) that's not how the pairings lay down and b) as will be noted in a few more sentences the Bolts don't have anybody to compare with Green. Poti is in his 8th NHL season and was +/- +9 in 71 regular season games last season and had 2 goals and 27 Assists. Call this matchup a draw or even give a slight edge to Meszaros. Mike Lundin - Tyler Sloan: Lundin is a 24 year old second year pro whose play so far this season has been sound; in 12 games played he has 2 assists, is +4 and has 2 PIM. Sloan is filling in for injured Shoanne Morrisonn, despite being 27 years old and having had a long and fairly successful AHL career, this is the first year he's seen action at the NHL level. So far this year he's played in 5 games for the Capitals, scored his first NHL goal, is +1 and has 2 PIM. He has been playing very well and in the Caps - Rangers game the Poti - Sloan pairing was solid. Call this matchup a draw. Mike Green - Paul Ranger: Probably not the right matchup to consider given Steve Eminger will play his second game with the Lightning tonight and I expect him to have more minutes and a second pairing position but based on the Tampa Bay - Flyers game this is where things fell. Okay - this is a no contest, Green is the absolute going away better player, even on an off night where he makes a mistake or two on the backend while trying to add too much to the offense; Ranger was - 13 in 72 games last season and is +/- 0 so far this season. Mike Green was +6 last season and is +4 so far this season. Jeff Schultz - Steve Eminger: Last season Schultz played 72 games and was +/- +12 with 5 goals and 13 assists. His play so far this season has been solid but uninspired - he's -1 and has 5 assists in 13 games. Eminger spent most of the last regular season in the Capitals press box before having a solid performance against the Flyers in the playoffs. He was traded to the Flyers in the off season and was performing fairly well but inconsistently there in the first 12 games of the season before being traded to the Lightning last week. Eminger's numbers so far this season are +1, 2 assists and 10 PIM. Because of intangibles and solid communications between Kolzig and Eminger based on their prior play together, if Kolzig is in goal I give a light advantage on this match-up to Eminger. Milan Jurcina - Marek Malik: A weird but valid comparison none the less, these two players are on the opposite ends of their careers. Both are big, strong European (Malik is Czech and Jurcina is Slovak) mostly stay at home defenseman. Last season with the Rangers, the 33 year old Malik played in 42 games, was +7, had 2 goals, 10 points and 48 PIM. The 25 year old Jurcina played in 75 games for the Caps last season, was +4, and had 1 goal, 9 points and 30 PIM. So far this season Malik is +3 and Jurcina is -3. Give this Comparison to Malik and the Lightning but recognize last game out Malik logged over 20 minutes against the Flyers while Jurcina logged only 15:06 TOI against the Rangers. My point being that you take this matchup anf give it to the Bolts for 15 minutes of Malik's ice time and then the remaining five minutes he's up against Mike Green who averages about 25 min TOI and that matchup gos to Green. John Erskine - Lucas Krajacik: Another slightly strange comparison, the 25 year old Krajacik, like Jeff Schultz is a former first round draft pick (Florida, 2001, 24th overall) while the 28 year old Erskine was a second round pick by Dallas, 39th overall in 1998. Last season Krajacik played in 39 games for the Vancouver Canucks, was -3, had 2 goals, 11 points and 36 PIM. During the 2007-2008 season, Erskine played in 51 games for the Caps, was +1, had 2 goals, 9 points and 91 PIM. Erskine is probably the number #2 pugilist on the Capitals behind Donald Brashear, which accounts for about half those PIM. Both are comparable statistically so far this season, however given the greater mobility and improved communication between Erskine-Jurcina and Johnson over the last three games you have to give any slight edge in this comparison to the Erskine. Overall give call the defensive matchups a draw or a slight edge to the Capitals if Poti continues the solid play he's had since his return and Green has a good or better game.
Goaltending: Assuming a Brent Johnson - Olaf Kolzig matchup you have to give the slight edge or better to the guy who is playing at home. Of course that means the "Rock the Red" crowd have to remember that's Johnson and not Kolzig. Both Johnson and Kolzig are playing well. However, Johnson will be starting his fourth game in a row, and as Kolzig would tell us the constantly improving communication between a goaltender and his defense that back to back starts give a team are worth a couple of extra blocked shots and stopped scoring chances. Also given last year’s stats and this year’s so far Johnnie has a slight edge in save percentage. So even though it pains me after years of rooting for Olie the Goalie, I'm giving this edge to the current Caps team as well. If it's Mike Smith in the net for Tampa Bay then call it a draw, though if I were Barry Melrose I'd give the nod to 'Zilla and be hoping he has one of those awesome "steal the game" nights as well. Besides, look at the drama it all creates.
Overall prediction: Caps win in regulation 4-2. I'll be Rockin' the Red in Section 103 with one of my college buddies, Rob, after a nice meal and a few beers at Clyde’s. Here's hoping my prediction is on the mark and "the good guys" have another two (2) point night.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!