Thursday, February 3, 2011, 2:21 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
It's only Game 53 of 82, and the outcome of this one alone probably isn't going to determine whether the Washington Capitals make or miss the playoffs.
Make no mistake, though: The Capitals know the significance of Friday night's game against the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. Some are even willing to go so far as to give it an ever-dangerous label: A "must-win" game.
"Yeah," defenseman Mike Green said. "Yeah, it is."
The stakes in Tampa Friday night are clear. The Caps already trail the Lightning by five points in the Southeast Division. A loss in regulation puts the deficit at seven points. And that's an awful lot of ground to have to make up in the season's final two months. A win in regulation, meanwhile, trims the lead to only three points, a manageable number.
"The reality is, it's a big game for both teams," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "If I'm them, I'm saying: 'Hey, we can put this away.' If I'm us, I'm saying: 'We want to fight till the end.' Seven or three, it's what they call the big four-pointer."
Since overtaking the Carolina Hurricanes on the final day of the 2007-08 season, the Capitals have owned the Southeast Division. Amazingly, they haven't played against a higher-ranked division opponent since Nov. 6, 2008, only 11 games into that season.
The Lightning's ascension to the top of the heap this season, though, hasn't come as a huge surprise. With two of the league's four leading scorers (Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis) and a hot goalie in 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson (five straight wins, two straight shutouts), Tampa Bay is the real deal.
"They believe in their system, and they do it to a T," Boudreau said. "They're a very confident team, and rightfully so."
And they've had the Caps' number lately, winning two head-to-head matchups in the past month, both shutouts.
Offense has been a lingering problem for the Capitals, who have scored only 22 times in their past 11 games. Against a patient club like the Lightning, scoring opportunities can be few and far between.
"That kind of system, they're waiting for teams to make turnovers," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We've been talking about it. Hopefully we can find a way to get through their defense and score."
As has been the case for about four weeks now, the Capitals will continue to hope Alexander Semin is ready to return from a lingering groin injury and inject some life into their stagnant offense. Boudreau, though, still didn't know Thursday afternoon whether Semin would be making the trip and be available Friday night.
Boudreau put his team through a couple of hard practices in the wake of Tuesday's shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and he had his players sitting through a longer-than-normal video session Thursday at Kettler Iceplex.
"We've made some adjustments that hopefully will work tomorrow night," Green said.
If they don't? Well, three years ago, the Caps made up nine points in three weeks to catch and overtake the Hurricanes on the final day of the season.
Not that anyone wants to be put in that position again.
"We've got to be the chasers," Boudreau said. "We've been in this position before, so it's not totally new to them. But it makes every game a little more vital."