The Washington Capitals are finally starting to show some signs of life after a brutal start. They will look to push their winning streak to three on Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the first meeting of the season between the teams.
Washington's biggest issue so far has been on the defensive end. The Capitals have allowed 46 goals, which is tied for the second most in the NHL. Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby are both struggling, showing the importance of a reliable goalie, especially in front of a lackluster defensive corps.
It's a worrisome weakness heading into a matchup with the league's top offense. Tampa Bay is averaging nearly four goals per game. Steven Stamkos leads the team with seven, and eight other players have found the net at least three times already.
Due to the shortened season, the Capitals don't have much margin for error left. Games like this one against the Southeast Division rival Lightning are already crucial. Here's a look at all the key information for the game followed by some players to watch and a prediction.
Where: Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
When: Thursday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Watch: NHL Network
Live Stream: NHL GameCenter
Key Injuries (via USA Today)
Capitals: Tom Poti (questionable, upper body) and Marcus Johansson (questionable, upper body)
Lightning: Mattias Ohlund (out, knee) and Ryan Malone (out, lower body)
Capitals Player to Watch: Alex Ovechkin
It shouldn't be a surprise that Washington's improved play coincides with Ovechkin picking up the pace offensively. After a slow start, the dynamic winger has at least one point in five straight games and a goal in the last three.
The amount of pressure on his shoulders is amazing. When the team struggles, he takes all the heat. But if you look at the roster, it's clear that he isn't getting support from his teammates. He doesn't have nearly as much talent surrounding him as fellow superstar Sidney Crosby.
While players like Wojtek Wolski, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer would be solid depth pieces, they are being forced into key offensive roles for the Capitals. Ovechkin is an elite player, but he can't be expected to carry the entire load.
The best thing about watching him play is seeing a big-name player who isn't afraid to embrace the physical aspect of the game. He ranks third on the team in hits, so he brings more to the table than simply scoring goals.
Lightning Player to Watch: Martin St. Louis
St. Louis stands 5'9'', and opposing defensemen usually tower over him. But for more than a decade, he's been putting up big numbers. It's a testament to his work ethic. He's the type of player coaches love because they can count on him to bring it every night.
That's especially true over the past few seasons. Earlier in his career, he was able to rely on his quickness to make plays. But as he's gotten older and some of that first-stride speed has disappeared, he's been forced to get more creative.
It shows on the stat sheet. St. Louis has 17 points, 14 of which are assists, in 12 games. At 37, he's still finding ways to make plays and have a major impact for the Lightning. Fans wouldn't expect anything less from him.
His task on Thursday is to take advantage of the weak Washington defense and get the Lightning back on track. They have dropped five straight and have fallen out of the top eight. It illustrates how much every game means in a short season.
Key Matchup: Mike Ribeiro vs. Steven Stamkos
The Capitals would have probably felt pretty good about their standing if somebody would have told them Ribeiro would be tied with Stamkos in points at the quarter pole. The overlooked center is on fire with points in all but three games.
That type of production is expected from Stamkos. He's surpassed the 90-point plateau in each of the past three seasons. Although that's not going to happen in a shortened season, he should still maintain his greater than point-per-game pace.
Ribeiro and Stamkos will probably go head-to-head quite a bit throughout the game. While Ribeiro has done his part to stop the Capitals from completely collapsing, you have to give the edge in this matchup, and the game, to the Lightning.
Lightning 4, Capitals 2