A pair of Southeast Division rivals will begin their lockout-shortened season on Saturday, as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Washington Capitals .
The Lightning and Capitals split six meetings in 2011-12 and only one of those contests was decided by more than one goal. The teams each have five wins over the last 10 encounters, but Washington has dropped three straight and five of eight at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Capitals continued a downward trend last season and look to new head coach Adam Oates to turn things around. Washington has made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, but its 42 wins and 92 points recorded in 2011-12 were the lowest in that span and ended the club's four-season reign as Southeast Division champions.
Washington general manager George McPhee also shook things up with an offseason trade, acquiring a skilled veteran from the Dallas Stars in Mike Ribeiro, who is expected to center the second line. Ribeiro, who cost the Caps forward Cody Eakin and a second-round pick in the 2012 draft, will be tasked with providing offense from a line that doesn't contain superstar Alex Ovechkin.
Ribeiro had 18 goals and 63 points for the Stars in 2011-12.
Oates' biggest task is finding a way to get Ovechkin back on track after the club's shift in philosophy to a more defensive style wreaked havoc with his numbers. The sniper's points total has gone down each season since his 112- point campaign in 2007-08 and he had just an alarming 65 points a season ago. Ovechkin did net 38 goals, six more than he did in 2010-11, but it is no secret that the Capitals are more dangerous when he is netting closer to 50 goals.
The Caps enter this season with Braden Holtby as the No. 1 option in net after he posted a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 14 playoff games last spring. Holtby was a big reason Washington was able to oust Boston in the first round before losing in seven games to the New York Rangers.
The Lightning, meanwhile, will try to gain some respect back this season after missing the playoffs in 2011-12.
After dropping a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference finals to end the 2010-11 season, the Lightning were considered a team on the rise thanks to a 23-point improvement. However, the Bolts took a big step back last season, going from 103 to 84 points and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Injuries plagued Tampa Bay for a good chunk of the season as forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Mathieu Garon all missed time, while a knee injury prevented blueliner Mattias Ohlund from suiting up all season.
With Garon having recently turned 35, the Lightning were in the market for a goaltender of the future and general manager Steve Yzerman hopes to have acquired just that after trading for Nashville Predators netminder Anders Lindback. The 24-year-old Swede is a former seventh-round pick, but was solid in the brief times he filled in for former Vezina Trophy nominee Pekka Rinne. In 38 career games, including 28 starts, he has gone 16-13-2 with a 2.53 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and two shutouts.
Tampa Bay allowed a league-high 278 goals a season ago, so in addition to trading for Lindback, the club signed defenseman Matt Carle and Sami Salo to shore up its two top defensive pairings with Hedman and Eric Brewer.
The Lightning's best weapon is still sniper Steven Stamkos, who tries to build off a season in which he scored 60 goals. He was only the second player since the 2005-06 lockout to net 60 goals in a season, joining Ovechkin, who had 65 tallies back in 2007-08.
Tampa Bay had a terrific 25-14-2 mark at home last season, but its playoff chances were undone by a dismal 13-22-6 record on the road. Washington was just 16-21-4 as the guest in 2011-12.