- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2003

TAMPA, Fla. Tonight, the Washington Capitals might be counting on a little psychology and a gentle reminder of the recent past.
Washington and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps closest pursuer in the Southeast Division, meet tonight for the final time during the regular season. The Caps have a six-point lead on the Lightning, but Tampa Bay has played two less games.
The Caps have history on their side, as recent as two weeks ago and as far back as four years. The last time Washington was here, on Feb. 4, there was talk in the local newspapers about Tampa Bay finally playing a game of real significance this late in the season. Usually, at this point in the schedule, the Lightning players are confirming their April tee times.
Of course the significance of that game nearly two weeks ago was the way in which the Caps embarrassed the Lightning 5-1. Jaromir Jagr recorded his 11th career hat trick, which included the 500th of his NHL career. Washington held a 5-0 lead before Tampa Bay avoided the shutout.
But there was far more to it than one victory. The win was the Caps' third straight and pushed their record to 16-2-1 against Tampa Bay over the last four seasons. The Lightning even have trouble winning at home and the Caps hold a 17-6-2 edge over Tampa Bay since it entered the league in 1992.
The mindset for Tampa Bay is one of waiting for the other skate to drop. The Caps had that same feeling when they struggled against Montreal for all those seasons, or when they were winless against Buffalo during the Scotty Bowman era, or nearly winless against the New York Islanders for the years when Al Arbour was behind the bench.
"We have to get out of the gate in a hurry," Caps coach Bruce Cassidy said yesterday. "We have to make good things happen early, make them aware of us. We have to have our 'A' game going right from the start. I know these are all old cliches but every one of them hold meaning for this game."
Cassidy cited the 2-0 loss to Montreal on Feb. 9 and the 3-1 setback to Carolina on this trip as examples of what his team needs to avoid.
"In either one of those games, if we had let them know we meant business right from the start it might have had a different outcome," he said. "Against Carolina, we gave them reason to hang on, reason to believe they could win the game. And when you do that, especially with a team that is struggling and really needs a win, it makes it very difficult to come back and beat them."
Washington has a record of 20-4-3-3 when it scores first; it is 8-18-4-0 when the opponent scores the initial goal.
Another key to a Washington victory is avoiding obstruction penalties. Many of Tampa Bay's primary players are smallish and quick to dart through tiny holes. However, they also are easy to knock over and tend to draw penalties.
And the numbers back that up. Tampa Bay is one of the league leaders in the ratio between power plays and penalty kills at plus-61. However, the Lightning's power play connects only 16.1 percent of the time, which keeps it a middle of the pack club. The Caps, a bigger, more physical team, are near the bottom of the pack in the ratio at minus-43. Their penalty killing has improved recently, which has helped the team stay atop the Southeast Division.
"It's bailed us out," Cassidy said. "It's helped us win close games. I think it's a lot more responsible now. We're to the point where we're confident we can kill a penalty. We're not worried every time we take one that's questionable."
Notes
Backup Sebastien Charpentier got the job done against Florida but Olie Kolzig will be back in goal for the Caps tonight. … The Lightning have been 0-2-2-1 since the All-Star break but broke through Saturday night with a 5-2 win over Boston. In that game goalie Nikolai Khabibulin snapped his 10-game winless streak with a very strong performance.

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