- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Washington Capitals saw firsthand Saturday that there’s very little — if anything — the Tampa Bay Lightning do poorly.

Not only do the Lightning have 11 more wins and 19 more standings points than any other team in the NHL entering Sunday, they also rank first in goals scored, power play percentage and penalty kill percentage.

They’re also top five in fewest goals allowed and top 10 in faceoffs. Other than that, beating them is no sweat, right?

Tampa Bay’s 6-3 win over Washington was just the first of three regular-season meetings between last year’s Eastern Conference finalists. Due to a scheduling quirk, the Capitals face this juggernaut twice more in the waning weeks of the season.

Before the Capitals flew to Florida, Tom Wilson said it felt “like forever” since they’d seen the Lightning. They vanquished them in Game 7 of the conference finals a year ago en route to the Stanley Cup.

“I think the end of that series was a lot of like, ‘I’ll get you next year,’ and then you play the whole season and you haven’t seen them,” Wilson said. “I’m sure it’s a rivalry now. They’re a good team — they’re playing the best hockey in the whole league right now.”

He went as far as to call the three late-season meetings a playoff series in their own right. “Why not?” he cracked.

Looking ahead to the next two meetings — Washington hosts the Lightning Wednesday and returns to Tampa Bay on March 30 — the Capitals realized how matching the Lightning’s ruthless execution is crucial, especially when they have the talent to go toe-to-toe.

“Some of our top guys had excellent games (Saturday), but we have to have everyone all the way through our lineup having top games to be able to match up against this team right now,” coach Todd Reirden said.

The Capitals and Lightning don’t play the same style of hockey, but personnel-wise, it’s always an even and enticing matchup.

For Alex Ovechkin, leading the NHL with 48 goals after scoring a pair Saturday, Tampa Bay can flaunt its own Russian winger. Nikita Kucherov is a favorite to win the Hart Trophy for league MVP as he leads the league in assists (82) and overall points (117) along with 38 goals of his own.

For Braden Holtby, the Lightning counter with Andrei Vasilevskiy, with a magnificent 2.28 goals against average and .929 save percentage.

For the Capitals’ center depth of Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller, the Lightning have veteran Steven Stamkos, the criminally underrated Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli.

When the Capitals eliminated the Lightning last year, they controlled the game by slowing it down and keeping the puck away from Tampa’s dangerous transition offense and power-play unit. It’s a strategy that could work again, especially in a hypothetical postseason rematch.

It remains to be seen if these sides will meet again in the Eastern Conference Finals. For now, the Lightning are a lock to win the Presidents’ Trophy, and the Capitals and other teams around the league have shown respect for how dominant they’ve been.

“We’ve been in that situation before,” Holtby said. “We know that it doesn’t come easy.”

But if any team knows how meaningless that regular season honor ultimately is, it’s the Capitals.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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