WASHINGTON — The story line for the Lightning in its game tonight with the Capitals at the Verizon Center was supposed to be simple: Can it hang with its primary Southeast Division foe?
But after Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Bruins in which Tampa Bay was thoroughly dominated, a game that was supposed to determine how the Lightning measures up now is about proving it can stand up.
"We will see," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said, "if we're a bounce-back team."
The way Boucher sees it, the Lightning was at a disadvantage in Boston because it was playing the second of back-to-back road games while the Bruins had Friday off.
Tampa Bay still is in a tough spot, playing a third game in four nights right out of preseason, but the team did not practice Sunday.
"So, we will have no excuses," Boucher said. "This will be an important one to see how we play. I'm not talking win or lose. We're still at Washington. They're still the No. 1-ranked team in our conference, so it's going to be another difficult one. But we should be better. With a day off, we should be better than that."
Even without that overlay, the game promises to be emotional.
As the Lightning has improved, the teams have built up a healthy rivalry. This also is their first meeting since Tampa Bay swept the Capitals out of the Eastern Conference semifinals. There is no doubt Washington, which has won four straight division titles, would love to, as Lightning center Steven Stamkos said, "make a statement that they mean business this year."
"We owe them a good game," Capitals defenseman Mike Green told the Washington Post. "They, obviously, took us down last year in four and that's something you don't forget. Doesn't mean we're gunning out there for anybody, just means we're going to play our hardest game and make sure we challenge them."
The Lightning wouldn't mind making a point, either.
"You're always trying to establish your game and the type of game you're going to bring to the table every night," defenseman Eric Brewer said. "So, when you play a team six times and they're a perennial favorite every year, you have to make sure they know you're for real."
The focus for both teams is on their top players. Tampa Bay's top six did not give the team what it needed against the Bruins, Boucher said. And Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, after the team disappointed again in the postseason, apparently vowed to owner Ted Leonsis he will be more committed to training and video work.
In other words, both teams, and individual players, have something to prove.
"They're a very good team, and the last time we saw them they beat us four times in a row," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It should be an interesting game."
"For sure their guys will be extremely motivated," Boucher said. "They're an outstanding team, so just trying to keep up with them, we're going to have our hands full. One thing is for sure, it's going to be great hockey."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.