Caps struck by Lightning in season opener

Caps struck by Lightning in season opener
January 20, 2013, 8:00 am
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Capitals-Lightning highlights 1-19-13

For two periods, these Southeast division rivals staged a very close fight. Neither Tampa Bay nor Washington deserved many style points through the choppy opening 40 minutes, and neither team earned the lead. When it came time to decide a winner in the final frame, however, the Lightning supplied more than enough energy to jolt the Caps, by a 6-3 margin.

A packed house at Tampa Bay Times Forum was primed for the return of NHL hockey Saturday. It was safe to say that fans could not be sure of what to expect from the two sides, especially after teams league-wide were given just six days to prepare for play. Head Coaches Adam Oates and Guy Boucher both predicted the season opener would be sloppy and they were correct.

The Lightning were a strong team on home ice last season and they were a group that treated the home fans to plenty of goal-scoring celebrations. On this night, the locals would only wait a little more than six minutes to let out their first loud roar of the campaign.

The Caps fizzled on consecutive power plays in the first four minutes of the contest, unable to crack Tampa Bay goalie Anders Lindback, who was making his Lightning debut.

Braden Holtby, guarding the goal for Washington, was lonely at his end of the rink while all the attention was directed at Lindback and the shorthanded Lightning.

As it turned out, the first chance Tampa Bay had at its offensive end would pay dividends. Eric Brewer closed in from his point position and laced a wrist shot past the catching glove of Holtby on the first shot for the hosts.

Joel Ward needed about two minutes to respond for Washington. After he went an entire season without a power-play goal last year, Ward connected with the man-advantage at 8:25. He parked in front of Lindback and managed to steer a close range rebound past the towering netminder.

The tie would not last for long. Seasons come and seasons go, but whenever the Caps and Lightning meet, it seems like Tampa Bay’s brightest stars shine. Vincent LeCavalier was rooted in front of Holtby and punched home a rebound off a goal-mouth scramble just 44 seconds after the Ward tally.

The Caps would play a good chunk of the second period shorthanded. But before their parade to the penalty box began, they would see Ward knot the score at two only 1:59 into the middle period. With a delayed penalty about to be called on the Lightning, Ward found himself in front of Lindback, deked to his backhand, lost possession of the puck and thankfully had it glance off his skate and into the goal. Video review proved there was no distinct kicking motion, so Ward had his second and the game was even.

Both the Caps and the Bolts dressed seven defensemen for this game, wanting to make sure to keep the blueliners as fresh as possible inside an arena that is known to get a bit warm. Washington would lose the services of newcomer Jack Hillen after a powerful collision with LeCavalier sent him crashing to the boards and exiting with a very sore shoulder.

Martin St. Louis would be the beneficiary of all the power play time the Lightning would soon receive. He took a nice feed from LeCavalier and delivered a close-range tap-in to give Tampa a 3-2 lead.

While the Lightning kept the top line of Washington (Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin) under wraps, the visitors were pleased to see a couple more newcomers click to level the count.  Mike Ribeiro worked through traffic before unleashing a shot that caromed off Lindback right to a waiting Wojtek Wolski in the slot. With the open net yawning in front of him, Wolski potted his first as a Cap with relative ease.

The stage was set for an interesting third period, but the Capitals did not show much zip over the last 20 minutes.

St. Louis started the Lightning down a decisive path with a wicked one-time slapshot that stung the top corner of the net. NHL goal-scoring champ Steven Stamkos made the pass that St Louis blasted for his second PPG of the game, this one of the 5-on-3 variety. The Washington penalty killers were close to clearing the puck before the Bolts clicked, but close does not count.

A neutral zone breakdown by the Caps led to the Lightning insurance goal. Teddy Purcell, who ended up with three assists, found rookie winger Cory Conacher to finish off a 2-on-1 break. Conacher, the MVP of the American Hockey League last season, tallied a goal and an assist in his NHL debut.

Another long blast from Brewer would find its way past Holtby to seal the deal with just less than four minutes remaining in regulation.

The Caps have a couple of days to work on getting their game in sync before Winnipeg lands inside Verizon Center. We didn’t see enough of their cycle game long the boards, and there were long spells where their skating legs looked a bit heavy.

Regardless of the setback on Saturday night, it’s great to be back on Comcast SportsNet, and we look forward to seeing the fans in red-colored splendor on Tuesday.