Sharks vs. Capitals: Why Tonight's Game Could Be a Stanley Cup Preview
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A Tale of Two Cities is a novel by Charles Dickens about London and Paris set during the time of the French Revolution. It followed those two cities and what they went through during those tough times, and the very same story could really apply to San Jose and Washington.
The upcoming game versus the Washington Capitals is in many ways like looking in the mirror for the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks have won six of their last seven and have put together a streak in the middle of a brutal road trip. Their play has shot them up the standings from 11th to 5th in the Western Conference, where parity is truly a fickle thing. With a 28-19-6 record good for 62 points, the Sharks are back in the thick of things and gaining momentum.
The Sharks blanked the Bruins for their sixth win, having dispatched their second Vezina candidate in as many games. The Sharks know all too well that team fortunes can change on a weekly basis in the crazy Western Conference this year. Their special teams, 5 on 5 play, and defense have been powering their game and they know they have to keep the pressure on.
The Capitals have won their second straight with a bold win over their rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals are also 5th in the standings with a 29-15-10 record good for 68 points.
The Sharks and Capitals are both gaining some traction after struggling through the first half of the season. And the two teams have been playing well enough to spring new hope to their perspective fanbases.
With the age old adage of rest vs rust in mind, these two teams are getting hot at the right time something that they’ve not always been known for. Whether coming into the playoffs rested, or hitting your stride is the winning recipe, we’ll know a lot more about both teams after Tuesday.
Being #1 Stinks Sometimes
Alex and the Caps would squander a 3-1 series lead a year ago
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Let’s get the obvious President’s Trophy connections out of the way, with the Sharks winning in 2008-2009 and the Capitals winning in 2009-2010.
The Sharks would set a new franchise record with 117 points winning the President’s Trophy. That version of the Sharks entered the playoffs flat and uninspired having coasted to the playoffs going 36-7-5 throughout January.
The Sharks would look less impressive posting a 17-11-6 mark from February until the end of the season. They would win the President’s Trophy that year after dropping a 4-3 decision to the Kings on the final game of the season.
The then eight seeded Ducks would dominate the Sharks winning the first two games at HP before closing the door in a 4-1 Game Six embarrassment.
The Capitals would win the Trophy in 2009-2010 after dominating the regular season posting 121 points en route to their top seeding. The Capitals posted a ridiculous 37-12-6 record through January and looked to ride their video game offense to the ultimate prize in professional sports.
After some early taunting by the Capitals versus the playoff hero in Jaroslav Halak, the Capitals offense would choke against the Canadiens defense. Eliminated in seven games by the eighth seed, the Capitals would blow a 3-1 series lead in the first round.
This would mark the first time in NHL history a 8 seed would come back from a 3-1 deficit against a 1 seed, a dubious distinction if you are a Caps fan.
These two teams find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to fight for the playoffs, will this change their postseason fortunes?
Lots Of Coal in The Stockings
The Sharks top line would get coal in their stockings this Christmas
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Both high powered offenses have struggled through some tough stretches before the All-Star Break The holidays were not kind to either team as they endured a bad stretch of losses that threatened their playoff chances.
The Capitals would endure a eight game winless streak, their longest since 2004 before recording a win against the struggling Senators Dec 19th. The touted trio of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin were as silent as church mice during the stretch.
All three of them would have a December to forget recording a combined 6 goals, 18 assists and a +1 rating throughout the entire month.
The Sharks in December would lose eight of 10 games, many at home in a slump not seen since 1997. Not to be outdone, the Sharks top trio of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley would also struggle in December.
The top line would combine for 11 goals, 19 assists and give new meaning to the phrase “riding the minus train” with a combined -9 rating.
Niemi has been spectacular some nights
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Todd McLellan and the coaching staff would seemingly give Niemi the nod over Niittymaki early in the season despite Niemi’s struggles. Whether to get him into a groove or settle down his game, the coaching staff seemed to be favoring the wrong goaltender early in the season.
After struggling through most of the season early on Niemi has responded in posting a sparkling .942 SV% in January. The Sharks need some depth at this position as Niittymaki is still nursing a groin injury, and promising rookie Alex Stalock out for the season.
Niemi is 6-0-1 with a 2.09 goals-against average in his last eight starts overall, and he's 6-1-1 with a 1.47 GAA in his last eight on the road.
The Sharks are looking better than ever in support of Niemi, and playing with a concerted effort to clear rebounds and provide second chance support.
The Sharks, just like the Capitals are putting the defensive zone first and foremost in importance. The Sharks put up 25 blocked shots and did all the little things right in their own zone. This is the type of play that will carry the Sharks deep into the playoffs and perhaps to the next level.
After being mentioned in various “Nabokov returning” rumors the Capitals would instead stay their hand, using the youngest backstopper pairing in the NHL.
Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, both 22 years old have split time this season and have looked sharp during the season.
The Caps rank eighth in the league in goals against (2.34) and haven’t finished in the top 12 in the NHL in the goals against stat since the 1999-2000 season.
Eager has been huge as a Shark, now playing with Couture
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With the Sharks top line struggling for most of the season to get untracked their depth has risen to the occasion. Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi have played huge roles in picking up the slack for the top line.
The Sharks have also received a boost from their newest additions Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood. Their energy and jump have provided a boost to the team’s speed and forecheck.
With Ferriero being re-assigned this would presumably leave some space for one of the injured Sharks to return to the lineup.
The Capitals on the other hand, have won with some surprising contributions from their own depth players. Players like Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle have carried the torch while their top line players have struggled.
Youth Is Served
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Where would the Sharks be without their leading scorer, rookie Logan Couture? Couture has easily been the best Sharks skater this season, playing strong in all three zones. The rookie’s emergence has made one of the top six skaters expendable and he continues to impress rather than fade.
The best part of Couture’s game is how he seems to make anyone on his line a better player, and is looking forward to his second foray in the playoffs. Couture would also record the game winner against the Bruins after missing some time due to the flu.
Couture’s backhand shot at 7:22 of the first period would give him his seventh winner this season putting him in a tie with none other than Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead.
Rookie John Carlson, Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov are all very young and up and comers in the Washington roster. Carlson and Varlamov, like Couture had a taste of the playoffs last year and will look to take the next step in the playoffs this year.
Carlson played in 22 games last season, and like Couture still qualifies for Calder eligibility. With 22 points in 54 games the 21 year old defenceman is learning to play to Washington's new defensive philosophy.
Your Best Players Have to Play Their Best.
Joe's performance has been far and few between for any lasting impact
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Let’s face it, Joe’s season so far as captain of the San Jose Sharks hasn’t exactly worked out the way we’ve all envisioned. After a contract extension, Joe seemed to play with a fire early on this season. The David Perron suspension seemed to take the wind out of Joe’s sails, and he just hasn’t gotten his game untracked this season.
November would be unkind to Jumbo Joe as he would record just 5 goals, 15 assists in 33 games posting a -10 rating.
The Great Eight has also struggled mightily this season, with just 20 goals through 56 games compared to 41 at this time last year and 40 two seasons ago.
Ovechkin has also uncharacteristically struggled on the power play, where he endured a shutout stretch of 128 man advantages earlier in the year.
Alex Ovechkin would “breakout” against the Penguins last Friday, and had a goal and three assists. He would also take a dirty hit to the knee from Matt Cooke, not too unlike the dirty knee from Colton Orr that Logan Couture endured earlier this season.
Bottom line is both of these teams need their best players to step up and take the team to fulfill the very hefty expectations.
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This game will be another terrific barometer of where the Sharks are at this point of the season. Don’t let their mediocre offensive stats persuade you, this team is much improved defensively and has found their game.
Is talk of the Stanley Cup Finals premature? of course it is, don't be naive.
However, for these two teams having so many similarities, I for one would not be surprised to see either enjoying serious success in the playoffs.
Both teams have stars that are paying the price, blocking shots, making the smart safe play as opposed to the highlight reel flashy one. Both teams are buying into the system, sacrificing the individual play for the greater team good.
For a Sharks team that fell just short of the Finals a year ago, and realistically only missing Rob Blake there's much hope for the playoffs.
Tuesday's showdown vs the Capitals is only a curious look at two teams so similar, and yet so different.
Michael Neuvirth is likely to get the nod as the keeper for the Capitals, and is now 16-6-4 with a 2.46 GAA on the season. If he cannot go due to his lower body injury, Varlamov may get the nod with a 9-7-4 record, .928 save percentage and a 2.13 goals against.
The Capitals enter the game with a litany of injuries, most importantly to Alexander Semin and perhaps Mike Green who took a slap shot to the side of the head Friday.
Will these two teams with so much in common really reach the next level? Will the changes to these two teams make the difference in the playoffs? Two teams that have dominated the regular season, taking a new approach to team play, will it pay off?
Only time and the playoffs will tell.