Both the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals have had their share of troubles this season, enduring some awful slumps during the holidays in 2010. Although both of these teams limped into the All-Star Break, they had both found their way in many aspects headed into the Tuesday match-up.
Both teams were coming off of impressive shutout victories and were both three points back of their respective divisional leaders.
The Capitals were 17-5-7 at home good for second best in the NHL, with the Sharks at a 7th best 15-9-3 road record. While both teams were getting hot, the Sharks brought a 7-2-1 record in their past 10 games and a three game winning streak to Washington.
Washington won back-to-back victories, rebounding from a three game slide and was coming off a big 3-0 win over their hated rivals in the Penguins. Michal Neurvirth recorded 22 saves in the shutout and Ovechkin broke-out for a goal and three helpers.
This game had all the makings of a classic battle, with both teams trying to build momentum and fighting for positioning in their respective conferences.
The Capitals may be many experts dark horse out of the East, but tonight the Sharks took it directly to the Capitals and did just about what they wanted when they wanted.
Antti Niemi recorded 25 saves for his second straight shutout, and had a terrific outing against many high skill players with a lot of great chances.
The Sharks needed Niemi to play well in the first five minutes of the first period, where the Sharks briefly looked lost in their own zone. After two consecutive giveaways by Huskins, Niemi made three huge consecutive saves before the Sharks got a change.
The Sharks dominated the Capitals from that point onward, and stifled their skaters in their own zone for long stretches.
A lazy tripping penalty on Jamal Mayers granted the Capitals their first power play at 15:29 of the first period. The Capitals power play has struggled this year compared to years past, and Niemi would see to it that things would not change.
Niemi robbed Backstrom on a point blank chance just 24 seconds into the power play on a nifty feed from Chimera.
The two teams benefited from a quick whistle on back-to-back shots on both goals. Heatley was denied after Neuvirth dropped the puck, and Semin's goal was waived off after Niemi inadvertently kicked it into his own net.
The first period ended with the Sharks enjoying a 15-9 shot advantage and a 65% faceoff winning percentage. The second period opened much like the first in that the Sharks would again bend, but not break, under a Capitals forecheck.
The Sharks settled in again and got some great looks before the play mucked about in the neutral zone midway through the period.
Neuvirth stoned Heatley on a terrific feed from Thornton and Setoguchi—this line was very effective last night in generating chances.
Niemi flat out robbed the Great Eight with about three minutes left in the second period on a strange rebound off the zamboni entrance boards. Niemi was sharp on this save, and was not surprised when the puck somehow landed directly on Ovechkin's stick who, did not hesitate to let a shot rip.
Shortly thereafter, Jason Demers commited a horrible unforced turnover when he lackadaisically attempted a cross-ice pass high in his own zone.
Steckel intercepted the pass and headed in on Niemi on a breakaway opportunity, only to be denied. The fact that Demers is still making this kind of boneheaded, play is just baffling, the turnovers being unforced in nature only makes it worse.
The second period was just about all Sharks as they out-shot the home team by the tune of 12-4, and it wasn't even that close. When you take away the fluky Ovechkin shot, and the Steckel breakaway the difference seems much more drastic.
Joe Thornton missed an empty net chance at 12:55 of the second period, his second of the game to that point. Joe looked engaged last night and played a game like the playoff game he had against the Red Wings last year. Captain Joe stripped several Capitals from behind in the first period, and played strong along the boards all night.
Couture tallied his second game winner in as many nights, for a now NHL leading eighth game-winner this season. His third period goal would sneak past Neuvirth's five hole with little to no room for the 1-0 lead.
Just three minutes later, Devin Setoguchi hustled after a broken cycle behind the net and chipped the puck to Dany Heatley. Heatley fed Dan Boyle on a rocket one-timer for the 2-0 lead, and that was all the Sharks would need.
Setoguchi continues to work hard and hustle, and if not for a few unlucky bounces recently, he would have some goals to go with the effort.
Niemi's save against Semin on the point blank open net shot at 4:48 of the third was just filthy, he had no business making that save, and his acrobatics saved the shutout. Niemi held the Sharks in it, and despite some good Capitals chances late, Sharks fans would need no reminder of the blown leads this season.
Marcus Johansson dangled through the Sharks and got a great open chance at Antti, who again made the huge stop. Niemi proceeded to stone Ovechkin twice on some golden chances.
With their eighth win in the last nine games, the Sharks climbed over the Coyotes and the Predators, taking fourth place in the Western Conference. The Sharks now travel to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets, who are on a roll themselves, having won their last three games including a big win over the Penguins, 4-1.
What worked :
Team win - The Sharks are buying in across the board, and played mistake-free hockey for the most part in their own zone. Outside of the first four minutes in the first and second periods, the Sharks did all the little things right.
They controlled the play by getting the puck in deep, and were able to do whatever they wanted—this was as complete of a team win as we've seen all year.
More importantly, the Sharks did an excellent job defensively against a very potent transition team like the Capitals. This can only continue to build more confidence and momentum for the Sharks heading into the playoffs.
Logan Couture - Netting another game winner gave him the league lead over Alex Ovechkin, and he's showing some great chemistry with Eager and Wellwood. What else is there really to say about this kid? He plays hockey the right way, takes care of his zone and makes whoever he plays with better.
He is the Sharks MVP to this point and one can only wonder how sad the season would be without the efforts of Logan.
Couture is now within one of the Sharks franchise record for goals by a rookie held by Pat Falloon.
"It's getting to the point where you don't want to call him a rookie anymore because he plays big minutes and he's scoring huge goals for our hockey club," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "For a guy who just came off the flu and had to play this game, he was very effective."
Antti Niemi : Nemo wasn't tested too often against the Capitals but the chances he did stop were quality chances. He absolutely robbed Backstrom on the first power play, stemming from the Mayers penalty, and stonewalled Steckel on the breakaway. Not to mention the flurry late in the third, outside of a few puck-handling gaffes, Antti played a complete game.
There is still lots of hockey to play, but the signs during this road trip so far are very encouraging for the Sharks chances in the playoffs.
Since the loss against the Oilers, which put the Sharks at 21-19-5 on January 13 but have rallied to go 8-0-1 since that point.
"This (win streak) is exactly what we needed," said Couture. "We are not out of the playoff race yet -- this is the Western Conference, which is always very tight. There's still a lot of hockey to be played and we need to keep this rolling."
Bring on the Blue Jackets