When you’re having difficulty scoring goals, it’s even more important to tighten things up in your own end of the ice. The Caps did exactly that, and goalie Philipp Grubauer stopped all 24 shots he faced on Saturday afternoon in San Jose, helping Washington to a 2-0 victory over the Sharks.
Nicklas Backstrom supplied Grubauer all the offense he would require, netting his 17
th goal of the season with just 1:28 remaining in the second period. Lars Eller salted the game away for Washington with a late empty-netter, and Eller’s goal aside, the Caps managed to pull two points from this three-game trip despite scoring just two goals (against a goaltender) on the journey.
“They’re a real good regroup team or transition team,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Sharks. “I thought we controlled the middle of the ice on them really well. We didn’t allow them to get pucks behind us, and I thought we got [pucks] behind them, hung onto them, and forced them to play some defense.
“And then when we needed a big save, Grubi came up with a couple of those. I thought our puck management, our team play and our effort and commitment in a lot of areas all came together, and it was a pretty solid game.”
That San Jose total of 24 shots is an important figure in this tale, too. Coming into Saturday’s game, the Sharks had pumped 30 or more shots on the opposition net in 12 of their previous 15 games, and San Jose had generated 34 or more shots on net in six of its prior seven contests. But the Caps have tightened things up in their own end over the last few weeks, and for the first time this season they’ve now permitted 30 or fewer shots on goal against in five straight games.
Washington did not have a power play opportunity in Saturday’s game, as the disciplined Sharks have faced only 11 shorthanded situations in their last seven games. But the Caps were strong on their two penalty-killing missions, snuffing out a Sharks extra man chance in each of the game’s first two periods and limiting San Jose to a single shot on net in four minutes worth of time with the extra man.
Grubauer faced half of his two-dozen save workload in the first period, and he had one key save in the opening frame, making a strong stop on a Chris Tierney backhand rush chance from point blank range to paper over a neutral zone turnover with 6:46 left in the first.
Early in the second, the Caps had perhaps their best chance of the game to that point when the Sharks left Eller alone in front, and Vrana fed him perfectly from behind the San Jose cage. But Eller didn’t get all he wanted on the shot try, leaving a relatively easy stop for Sharks goaltender Martin Jones. Minutes later, Jones made an excellent glove stop on a Tom Wilson redirect try from an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed, keeping the game scoreless.
The Caps were extremely stingy in the second period, holding the Sharks to just 13 shot attempts and only three shots on net. Washington held San Jose without a shot on goal for seven and a half minutes at one point of the middle period, and Sharks' blueliners accounted for 10 of the team's 24 shots for the game.
Backstrom nudged the Caps in front – giving them their first lead of the three-game trip – after taking a crisp, cross-ice feed from linemate Brett Connolly, high in the San Jose zone and just after hopping over the boards. Backstrom drifted a few feet toward the net, then unleashed a rocket of a shot that went high to the far corner of the cage for a 1-0 Washington lead at 18:32 of the middle period.
“Obviously a nice pass from Conno,” recounts Backstrom. “I came right off the bench and saw a little spot over his shoulder, so I'll take it."
Grubauer was at his best in the third period, making a superb upper body stop on Logan Couture early in the final stanza, and a nice glove snare on Brenden Dillon shortly thereafter.
The Caps didn’t sit on the lead, and they had a great chance to double their lead when Alex Ovechkin skated in on a breakaway a couple minutes past the midpoint of the period. Jones had the answer for that one, and the game remained 1-0 until Sharks coach Pete DeBoer pulled Jones for an extra attacker with just over two minutes left in the game.
Seconds later, Eller removed any lingering doubt or drama from the contest when he shot from neutral ice right into the middle of the yawning net.
Saturday’s win ended a seven-game slide for the Caps in the state of California, and it also prevented what might have been Washington’s first three-game regulation losing streak of the season.
It was also the Caps’ first victory in regulation in San Jose in nearly a quarter of a century, since Oct. 30, 1993.