A key battle in the Eastern Conference playoff race is on tap tonight in D.C., as the struggling Washington Capitals host the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Southeast Division clash at the Verizon Center.
The Capitals enter tonight tied with the Sabres for the ninth seed in the East and they are trailing Winnipeg by two points for the conference's final postseason berth. Tampa Bay is just two points in back of Washington in both the conference and division standings and the Caps are only four points behind Florida for the Southeast lead.
The Lightning and Caps have split four meetings so far this season, with each team recording two wins on home ice. Washington has taken four of five and 11 of the last 13 meetings in the nation's capital.
Since ending February on a three-game winning streak, the Capitals have lost three straight games to fall to 1-2-1 on a five-game homestand that ends tonight. Washington is 21-10-3 as the host this year compared to a dreadful 11-18-3 road record.
Washington managed to earn a point in its last contest, losing Tuesday's test in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes. Justin Faulk scored the OT winner for Carolina on a one-timer from the slot.
Carolina had trailed the contest 2-0 in the early stages of the second period, but the Capitals allowed the visitors to tie the score at 2-2 by the end of 40 minutes. However, Washington did come back from a one-goal deficit in the closing minutes of regulation, as Brooks Laich scored at 17:08 of the third to send the game to overtime.
Jay Beagle also scored for the Caps while Michal Neuvirth allowed four goals on 36 shots as the Caps fell to 4-7-2 in their last 13 games.
"We played hard enough (to win) but we made mistakes on the back end tonight and it cost us," said Capitals coach Dale Hunter.
Washington goaltender Tomas Vokoun hasn't played since Feb. 22 due to a lower- body injury, but he will at least be available to serve as the backup tonight.
Meanwhile, the Lightning will not have goaltender Mathieu Garon for the next 3-to-4 week after he sustained a torn groin muscle in the early stages of Tuesday's home loss against the Ottawa Senators. Garon has won six of his last seven decisions for Tampa, but Guy Boucher's club now will have to lean heavily on 42-year-old backstop Dwayne Roloson down the stretch.
Tampa has recalled Dustin Tokarski from Norfolk, where he leads the AHL with 27 victories and has won eight consecutive starts for the Admirals. The 22- year-old has never started a game at the NHL level, but entered two contests in relief for the Lightning during the 2009-10 season.
The Lightning had a four-game win streak snapped in Tuesday's 7-3 loss to the Senators. Milan Michalek recorded his second career hat trick to lift Ottawa to the lopsided victory.
Tim Wallace, Ryan Shannon and Steven Stamkos all scored for the Lightning in the setback. Stamkos' marker was his league-leading 48th goal of the season and he is three tallies shy of his personal-best total of 51 in 2009-10.
Garon stopped all three shots he faced before leaving the game early in the first period. Roloson allowed five goals on 30 shots in relief and Ottawa added two empty-net scores late in the third period.
Tampa Bay is just 11-19-4 as the guest this year and will begin a seven-game homestand after tonight's tilt. The Bolts, who will begin the residency Saturday against Carolina, are 20-10-2 as the host.