Capitals-Lightning Preview


The Washington Capitals are in control of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but there may be a bigger prize at stake in their final three regular-season games.

The Capitals look to move closer to a postseason berth when they visit the eliminated Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night.

Washington (40-31-8) is two points ahead of Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with three games left. Those contests may have even more on the line for the Capitals since they're within three points of Florida for first place in the Southeast Division, and those teams meet Thursday in Washington.

The Panthers and the Sabres are idle Monday, and each has three games remaining.

Washington, seeking a fifth consecutive division title, caps the regular season Saturday with a visit to the East-leading New York Rangers in what could be a potential first-round playoff preview.

The Capitals, though, haven't made things easy on themselves recently.

They squandered two-goal leads in each of their last two games but posted 3-2 shootout victories in Boston on Thursday and over Montreal on Saturday.

"Two leads the last two games," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "We have to find a way to keep pushing and keep pressing and not letting teams back in the game."

Nicklas Backstrom could make a difference for Washington as he tries to build on his first game after missing 40 with a concussion. The center didn't get a point and was a minus-1 versus the Canadiens.

"I've got to play the same way that I usually play," said Backstrom, who has 13 goals and 29 assists. "I can't be worried about getting hit again, and that's what I did from the start and it felt all right, but I can be a little bit better. My lungs were a little tired there after a while."

Backstrom has no goals and one assist in his last six games against Tampa Bay (36-35-7), including the Lightning's second-round playoff sweep of Washington last year.

He's appeared in only one meeting this season as the Capitals have gone 3-1-1 versus the Lightning, winning 3-2 on Alex Ovechkin's overtime goal March 8.

Ovechkin has five goals and six assists in the past 10 meetings including the playoffs. However, he's gone without a goal in his last three games after scoring at least one in five straight.

A groin injury to Tomas Vokoun could mean a second consecutive start for Michal Neuvirth, who has won back-to-back games after making 39 saves Saturday.

He hasn't faced the Lightning since compiling a 3.74 goals-against average while starting each game of the playoff series last year.

Tampa Bay went on to lose the conference finals in Game 7, but the team isn't going to the playoffs this time.

Steve Stamkos has done his part, though, leading the league and setting a franchise record with 56 goals, netting six while adding two assists during a five-game point streak.

Stamkos set an NHL record with his fifth overtime goal of the season Saturday in a 3-2 victory over Winnipeg.

"Those moments create memories," said Stamkos, who has three goals and two assists against the Caps this season. "That's pretty special for as long as the NHL has been around."

Ryan Malone is adding some scoring punch with five goals in the past two games. The left wing has three goals and four assists in the past seven games with Washington, tallying once March 8.