The Washington Capitals roll into the Sunshine State this weekend as the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but the oddsmakers don't have Alex Ovechkin and his talented cohorts as the odds-on favorites to repeat.
Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning hold that honor, and the two teams square off Saturday night in what could very well be a preview of May's Eastern Conference final.
Washington (42-22-7) will play the third of its four-game road trip at Tampa Bay's Amalie Arena at 7 p.m. ET. In addition to the game featuring two division-leading teams, the matchup was made ever quirkier by the schedule-makers.
The meeting is just the first between the East's heavyweights, and they fill face each other three times in two weeks -- in Tampa on Saturday, at Washington on March 20 and back in Tampa on March 30.
Brett Connolly's big night against the Flyers in Philadelphia on Thursday helped the Capitals even their road trip at 1-1-0 after losing 5-3 to the Penguins on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
The right wing scored two goals, giving him a career-high 19 for a season, and added an assist as Washington handled the Flyers 5-2, damaging Philly's thinning playoff hopes.
The Capitals have won eight of their past nine contests, vaulting them past the New York Islanders for the Metropolitan Division's top spot. They will conclude the road trip in New Jersey on Tuesday before returning home to play the Lightning again.
Goaltender Braden Holtby made 22 saves, Washington's penalty-kill unit stopped three third-period power plays and Evgeny Kuznetsov salted the game away with an empty-net tally with 2:26 left for the win.
Washington coach Todd Reirden praised the play of Connolly, who is on the cusp of his first 20-goal campaign.
"I had a lot of positive thoughts about Brett going into this year," said Reirden, whose club improved to 33-3-1 when leading after two periods. "I thought he was the type of player who needed some confidence. He was given that at the beginning of the year.
"He's starting to play his best hockey."
The Lightning (54-13-4) rallied from a three-goal deficit Thursday to escape with a 5-4 win over the Red Wings in Detroit.
Madison Bowey, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader staked Detroit to a 3-0 lead in the game's first 24 minutes, but Tampa Bay rallied to take the lead behind tallies from their top goal scorers -- Steven Stamkos (35th goal), Brayden Point (38th), Nikita Kucherov (34th) and Tyler Johnson (25th).
Kucherov added his 35th -- and game-high fourth point -- with 3:22 left in regulation to earn a 5-4 win as the Lightning scored five unanswered goals.
Their 54 total wins and 25 on the road match team records set last year, and Kucherov's 115-point effort leads the NHL, and is 15 more than second-place Edmonton Oilers sensation Connor McDavid.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper put Kucherov, Stamkos and Point together on a line while trailing in Detroit, and the trio provided the jump-start the club needed in the final two periods.
"We needed a spark. They kind of gave it to us all the way around," Cooper said. "It's always nice to have the ace in the hole to put those guys together when they're going."
--Field Level Media