TAMPA — Goalie Dan Ellis says the Lightning takes pride in wanting to become the best team in the NHL.
Tampa Bay (8-4-2) has impressed this season and is much improved over a year ago. But to be the best, players know they have to beat the best. And the top team in the league is the Capitals (11-4-0, 22 points), winners of five consecutive games heading into tonight's matchup with Tampa Bay at the Verizon Center in Washington.
It's too early to call this a statement game. But Lightning players say it is a huge test, and it's significant in the standings, with Tampa Bay second to Washington in the Southeast Division, trailing by four points.
"They're the team to beat in the East," Ellis said. "Between them, and Philly and Pittsburgh, those three teams have been the marquee teams in the East the last three years. To match up against those teams is going to be big. We're going to have to bring our 'A' game."
The Capitals had the league's highest-scoring offense entering Wednesday, averaging 3.40 goals per game, led by Alex Ovechkin, third in the league in points with 20. (The Lightning's Steven Stamkos is first with 24.) The Capitals also are 7-1 at home.
"We're going into their barn. They're on fire," coach Guy Boucher said. "They're basically winning against everybody. I think they've got their game going, and they're the favorites."
For a few years, defeating the Capitals was a daunting task for the Lightning. It went 0-11-1 against Washington from December 2007 through December 2009, getting outscored 40-24. But Tampa Bay broke through in a big way Jan. 12, matching the Capitals physically in a 7-4 win, with right wing Steve Downie challenging Ovechkin to a fight.
"I think that's just the way that game unfolded," Downie said. "They took it to us a couple times and had pushed us around, even the year before that when they were celebrating their goals. I think guys got fed up with it."
The Lightning has outscored the Capitals 18-17 in their past five meetings, going 2-3.
Though captain Vinny Lecavalier and veteran wing Marty St. Louis didn't want to put too much stock in past meetings, considering how much has changed — from players to the Lightning's coaching staff and system — they believe the Lightning is better equipped for the challenge.
Said Stamkos, "We know we can compete with any team in the league if we play our game."
MEDICAL MATTERS: Downie didn't make the two-game road trip to Washington and Pittsburgh. He has been battling a back injury but has also apparently had neck pain since the Kings' Drew Doughty hit him from behind Nov. 4.
The Lightning is keeping him home as a precaution and trying to figure out if the neck issue is related to the back injury or whether he has a concussion.
"It's not bad, he's much better (Wednesday)," Boucher said. "But he wouldn't play in the two games anyways (because of the injuries), so keep him here, rest and have him back probably this weekend."
Boucher said he didn't have the results of injured left wing Simon Gagne's nerve conduction test done Tuesday. Gagne has missed eight games with a neck problem.
Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]