Last year, the Washington Capitals literally and figuratively ran away with the Southeast Division. The Caps built an insurmountable lead within the division and never looked back after winning by 38 points. This year, however, has been a much different story. With the Tampa Bay Lightning pulling away with the division lead, the Capitals will attempt to slow them down in a pivotal matchup Friday.
Entering the 2009-10 season, Washington had dominated Tampa Bay for quite some time; when the Lightning defeated the Capitals 7-4 on January 12, 2010, it was their first victory in the series since November 2007. Things seemed to return to normal at the beginning of the 2010-11 season when Washington defeated Tampa Bay twice by a combined score of 12-3. Since then, the Lightning have defeated the Capitals in their last two meetings behind shutouts by Dwayne Roloson. After going 19-2-3 against division opponents last season, the Capitals are just 9-6-2 this season.
When Roloson, who should start, and the Lightning take the ice Friday, they will be looking to not only shutout the Capitals for the third consecutive time, but to win their third consecutive shutout game in general. Tampa Bay is riding a six-game winning streak, with the last two wins coming via shutout. It is the Lightning's longest winning streak since 2004, the year they won the Stanley Cup. Washington, meanwhile, has lost three straight (0-1-2) and six of nine.
The Caps and Lightning enter Friday's game having played the same number of games (52) and with the same number of regulation losses (15). Yet, Tampa Bay holds a five-point lead because it has five more wins (32); the Capitals have five more overtime losses (10). With their fourth consecutive division title slipping away, the Capitals know that Friday's game is a must-win:
"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."
Despite practicing this week, Alexander Semin's status for Friday is unclear. Semin, who hasn't played since January 8, has scored six of Washington's 12 goals against the Lightning this season, but has scored just once since his hat trick against Tampa Bay November 26.