There are no late games on the West Coast. By the time the Washington Capitals took the ice for Saturday’s contest against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center, they already knew that most of the teams they’re chasing in the Eastern Conference playoff push had picked up a pair of points in the league’s earlier action out East.
And as has been the case for the duration of this three-game trip, the Caps managed to earn at least a point against a top Western Conference club. With a 3-2 shootout win over the Sharks in San Jose on Saturday night, the Caps finished off a three-game Western Conference trip with five of a possible six points. Washington is now 4-0-1 in its last five games.
“I think we were playing pretty good coming into it,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of the trip. “You came out [to California], and you knew it was three good teams. I think they were just mentally ready to play good hockey. Right from the first game in Anaheim, you know they’re a good team. And I think the guys were just mentally ready to do that.”
In the process, Capitals also ended a 12-game winless streak (0-11-1) in San Jose that stretched back to Oct. 30, 1993. The institution of the shootout was more than a decade away when Washington last won here, and the Caps needed a shootout to end that long drought.
“We’ve had a lot of trouble in this rink,” notes Caps forward Eric Fehr. “I think part of it is due to the fact that they’ve got a good team every year and they’ve always been a really good home team. We’ve had our work cut out for us, but we get that one off the back tonight and it feels pretty good.”
For the second straight game, the Capitals managed to scrape at least a point out of a game in which they trailed in the third period.
Washington drew first blood against the Sharks, doing so in both usual and unusual fashion. As usual, the Caps’ “Gang Green” line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward struck again to make it a 1-0 game. It was the goal itself that was unusual.
Chimera came out of the corner with the puck and centered it for Fehr in front. Fehr wound up and fired, and Sharks goalie Antti Niemi made the save. But the rebound pinballed out in front and caromed into the cage off a San Jose defender to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead at 11:25 of the first period.
“Somehow it came to my stick and I thought I got a pretty good shot off along the ice,” explains Fehr, “and Niemi just made a save. I guess they tried to clear it and somehow it ended up in the back of the net.”
The goal was the 13th of Washington’s last 16 scored in five-on-five fashion that featured the contributions of one or more members of the Fehr line.
“Fehrsie’s line has been on a roll,” extols Oates. “Chimmer and Wardo, they’ve played great every nighnt for a long time. They give us an identity; they eat up some minutes.”
The Caps were mere seconds away from nursing that 1-0 lead to the first intermission, but it wasn’t to be.
Instead of flinging the puck around the wall hard on his forehand – even though it may have resulted in an icing call – Caps defenseman Mike Green flipped the disc softly on his backhand around the backside of the net, putting it right on San Jose winger Matt Nieto’s stick in the process. Nieto tried to curl around in front and stuff the puck past Caps goalie Braden Holtby, but Holtby made the stop. Logan Couture did a drive-by just to the right of the net, centering the puck as he did. Patrick Marleau had all the time and space required to bury it from the top of the paint to make it a 1-1 game with just 5.6 seconds remaining in the first frame.
The Capitals successfully killed off a pair of minor penalties in the second period, and the Sharks killed off one of their own. San Jose had 17 shot attempts to just three for Washington in the first half of the middle period, though part of that advantage was due to the Sharks having two opportunities with the extra man during that stretch.
Washington weathered the Sharks’ push, and started to gain some footing of its own later in the frame. Although San Jose owned a decided 24-14 advantage in shot attempts in the second, that lead was actually 24-8 before the Caps reeled off six in succession to close out the period.
That late rally led to a hi-sticking call on San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic with just 10.9 seconds left in the second, giving the Capitals a power play chance for the first 1:50 of the third period. But the Caps couldn’t get anything going on their third man-advantage of the evening.
Sharks forward James Sheppard broke the deadlock at 5:07 of the third. Chimera uncharacteristically turned the puck over while working a cycle high in the San Jose zone, and Sheppard corralled the loose biscuit and tore off on a breakaway. He went to his backhand and beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby to put the Sharks on top 2-1 for the first time in the game.
At that stage of the game and facing one of the league’s elite teams, the situation seemed dire for the Capitals. They hadn’t generated many scoring chances all night, and the Sharks needed any kind of two-point night to clinch a playoff spot.
With its top six forwards still mired in a five-on-five scoring slump, the Caps managed to pull even with a timely contribution from their fourth line.
When Washington’s left coast odyssey began last weekend, Chris Brown was with the AHL Hershey Bears. A game into the trip, Brown was summoned from Pennsylvania and installed into the lineup for Thursday’s game in L.A. Playing the unfamiliar position of center, Brown pivoted for Dustin Penner and Tom Wilson on Washington’s fourth line in the game against Los Angeles.
Oates was happy enough with the trio’s performance that he kept it together in San Jose, and the threesome paid dividends late in the game against the Sharks.
Shortly after the midpoint of the third period, Wilson skated the puck down the right wing wall and into the San Jose zone. He and pushed it around the back of the Sharks’ net, past ex-Caps defenseman Scott Hannan. Wilson harassed Hannan, forcing the latter to try to backhand the puck around to partner Dan Boyle. Penner was there instead, and he centered to Brown in the high slot. The rookie’s wrist shot clanked off Boyle and got behind Niemi to even the score at 2-2 with 7:30 left in regulation.
The first goal of Brown’s NHL career also helped the Caps earn two critical points.
“It’s a pretty special feeling, obviously,” says Brown. “We got the win. That’s the thing that’s most important. We got the two points and kept the season alive.”
Alex Ovechkin’s offensive zone minor for hi-sticking at 17:42 put the Caps in a precarious state late in the game. Holtby made four stops during the ensuing penalty kill to help usher the game into overtime. The Caps dominated the extra session, but couldn’t break through. Washington prevailed in the shootout to gain a point in five straight games for the third time this season and first since early December.
“We’ve got L.A. again on Tuesday,” says Oates. “We just played them, we know what they’re like. They won again today. And every game is kind of a must game for every team. We’ve got a day to enjoy it [Sunday] and fly home and Monday have a good practice.”
Rare Lead – Fehr’s first-period goal staked the Capitals to their first lead in the San Jose building in more than a decade and a half, and more than eight full games. Before Fehr’s goal gave Washington a 1-0 advantage at 11:25 of the first period, the Caps last lead in San Jose came on Dec. 12, 1998 in a 2-1 setback to the Sharks.
Double Sawbuck – Sometime during Saturday’s morning skate, Caps goalie Jaroslav Halak made it known that he didn’t feel up to making an eighth consecutive start in goal. Holtby got the assignment instead, and he was more than up to it. Starting on shorter-than-usual notice, he played a strong game to earn his 20th victory of the season.
“It was a challenge,” says Holtby. “I obviously don’t want to go that long without starting but we’ve been playing very well lately so it hasn’t been an issue. I was given an opportunity to start tonight and I wanted to be there for the guys like they’ve been playing for the last little while. We came through again tonight.”
Holtby made 34 saves to earn the win. He has stopped 74 of the 78 shots he has faced in his last two starts.
“I’m happy for him,” says Oates of Holtby. “He played great and was called [upon] when it wasn’t expected.”
Halak has a lower body injury. He dressed and served as Holtby’s backup against the Sharks and Oates said after the game that he believed Halak would be ready to return to the net when the Caps come back to the District to face Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Killing It – From Oct. 14-Nov. 1, the Caps went eight straight games without allowing a power play goal (29-for-29 on the penalty kill). After keeping the Sharks at bay on the power play in Saturday’s game, Washington has had six straight games of perfect penalty killing (19-for-19).
Down On The Farm – A night after forging a 2-0 shutout victory over the P-Bruins in Providence, the AHL Hershey Bears were back in action on Saturday night, visiting the Sharks in Worcester. Hershey came out on the short end of a 4-2 score in Saturday’s game against San Jose’s top farm affiliate.
Casey Wellman staked Hershey to a 1-0 lead midway through the first period with his 16th goal of the season, getting help from Nicolas Deschamps and Ryan Stoa.
Worcester pulled even late in the second period, but Deschamps – with a single assist from Wellman – notched his 14th of the season near the midpoint of the third to restore Hershey’s one-goal advantage. But Hershey wasn’t able to protect that slim lead. The Sharks struck swiftly and fiercely as sharks sometimes do, scoring three times in just 3:15 during the final six minutes of the game. Each of those last three Worcester goals was scored at even strength.
David Leggio made 36 saves in the Hershey nets in a losing effort.
The 32-24-4-4 Bears are still in ninth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings, three points behind Providence for the eighth and final berth in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Hershey’s busy weekend tour of New England continues on Sunday when it visits Manchester for a matinee match.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals also spent Saturday night away from home. A night after earning a 4-2 win over the Wings in Kalamazoo on Friday, the Royals visited the IceMen in Evansville.
It didn’t go well for the visitors. After jumping out to an early 2-0 lead, the Royals suffered a 5-3 setback in Indiana.
T.J. Syner, Jesse Todd and Josh Brittain tallied for the Royals. Starting goaltender Brandon Anderson made 17 saves on the 22 shots he faced before being relieved by Riley Gill. Gill stopped all six shots sent in his direction.
The 40-21-2-1 Royals are still occupying the catbird’s seat in the ECHL’s Atlantic Division; they own a nine-point bulge on second-place Wheeling.
Thirty – Marleau’s goal in the first period was his 30th of the season. This is the seventh season in which Marleau has scored at least 30 goals in his 16-year NHL career. He has achieved each of those seven 30-goal seasons in the last nine campaigns.
By The Numbers – John Carlson skated 24:46 to lead all Washington defensemen and Nicklas Backstrom skated 23:06 to lead Caps forwards … Ovechkin paced Washington with five shots on goal and Wilson led the way with five hits … Jay Beagle paced the Caps with three blocked shots … The Capitals won only 31 percent (20 of 65) of the game’s face-offs … Joe Pavelski led all Sharks forwards with 24:08 in ice time and he also won 12 of 15 draws (80%).