Thoughts and Observations: Sharks 2, Caps 1 (shootout)

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I wouldn’t call the Caps’ dressing room upbeat after Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks. It wasn’t exactly a party in there after a second consecutive defeat – one to a bad team and another to a really good one. But if you’re the optimistic type then there were some positives to take on the flight to Pittsburgh, where Washington has the unenviable task of a back-to-back against the rested Penguins tonight. 

You can start with holding one of the NHL’s top teams to 29 shots on goal and, for the most part, limiting its scoring chances. That’s two games in a row where the opposition was held below Washington’s ugly average of 34.1 shots allowed per game, 28th in the league. Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov shook off their unfortunate turnover that led to the lone Sharks goal in regulation, a deflection by Tyler Kennedy. And John Carlson and Karl Alzner were routinely excellent in big minutes against a team with all kinds of scoring options.

Because the Sharks have played in the same system for so long, their veteran players are almost on “autopilot”, as Washington coach Adam Oates said. So San Jose coach Todd McLellan can mix and match his star players as he sees fit on a given night and not miss a beat. Players like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns are all comfortable playing alongside each other.

That actually led to Oates making a switch of his own. He flopped Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr at left wing. Fehr, who was on the ice for a goal, but did take four shots and generated a handful of quality scoring chances, moved next to Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer. Laich was put with Alex Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski. The reason? Laich is a faster skater and against San Jose, given the matchups, Oates felt he needed that on Ovechkin’s line.

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Funny story from Oates, who was salty when Alzner passed up a shot in the high slot for a pass to Ovechkin left of the goal and down below the faceoff circle. It was a classic case of moving the puck from a good scoring angle to a bad one.

“How can he pass up that shot?” Oates fumed to assistant coach Calle Johansson.

A second later Ovechkin had fired the puck through the tiniest opening left by Sharks goalie Antti Niemi. There are a handful of people in the world who can score from that spot on the ice against an NHL goalie. One of them just happened to take the shot. It was wicked.

“Oh – nice goal.” Oates deadpanned as Johansson mocked him on the bench.

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The Caps are in an interesting spot. Struggling and facing a long layoff last week, they beat Tampa Bay on the road and Toronto at home. That’s good. Then they lost a shootout to Buffalo, the NHL’s worst team, at home – that’s bad – and played well before dropping another 2-1 shootout to the Sharks. That’s…mildly positive?

So in four games and they came away with six points. That probably would have worked for them entering that stretch. But there was still a sense of disappointment after the San Jose loss as the players quickly jammed their gear into their equipment bags for the short flight to Pittsburgh.

Because while every game allegedly matters the same, there’s no question the Caps saw the back-to-back with the Sharks and the Penguins, two of the NHL’s five best teams, as tests, a chance to show they can hang with the league’s elite. They did so on Tuesday, though without the result they wanted, and have to do it again Wednesday on the road, their fourth game in six days, against a team that hasn’t played since Saturday. So…do these games really matter more?

“It’s a good question,” Laich said. “It’s not a real pat on the back to say ‘Oh, jeez, we hung out with the San Jose Sharks. I mean, we expect a lot out of ourselves. We think we’re an elite team, too. So we lost to Buffalo, which was the bottom of the standings, and this team is one of the top of the standings. It can go either way. But we’re certainly not sitting here patting ourselves on the back. We want more.”

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There’s been a few good scraps at Verizon Center lately. The Toronto game last Friday featured two, included a heavyweight bout between defenseman John Erskine and forward Colton Orr. That one probably can’t be topped. But Tuesday’s fight between Caps forward Aaron Volpatti and Sharks forward Mike Brown was close.

The two dropped the gloves at 11:39 of the first period with the game still scoreless. Not sure what precipitated it. Brown got two good shots in early and then his face took three or four direct hits from Volpatti. Brown somehow shook those off, fired off a few more of his own and the two fell to the ice.

Volpatti was left worse off with a smashed nose that left a trail of blood on the ice as he headed to the locker room for repairs. Brown’s left jersey sleeve, as he took a seat in the penalty box, was covered with blood, presumably Volpatti’s. No word on his status for Wednesday’s game at Pittsburgh.

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So where do the Caps stand right now? In about the same position that they started this grueling stretch of games before next month’s Olympic break. After a five-day rest to regroup following a 3-4-4 skid between Dec. 13 and Jan. 4, they are now 2-0-2 with six points.

The original schedule called for 17 games in 31 days before everyone breaks for either Sochi or vacation on Feb. 8. That’s been whittled to 13 games in 24 days, which hardly seems like a dent at all.

Given its brutal March schedule, Washington needs to pick up as many points as possible and build at least some cushion heading into the break. We’ll see. With a game in hand on the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps are 22-16-8 and have 52 points in 46 games. They remain, technically, in second place in the Metropolitan Division. But eight of the next nine games are on the road.

The Flyers have 52 points in 47 games and are in second place. The New York Rangers are just behind in third place with 51 points in 48 games. Washington faces them at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

The New Jersey Devils have 50 points in 48 games. The resurgent Columbus Blue Jackets – Friday’s opponent for the Caps – have 48 points in 46 games. The Carolina Hurricanes have 47 points in 46 games, too. The New York Islanders are in last place with 43 points in 48 games despite a nice run lately. The point? It’s awfully crowded in the Metropolitan Division. A bad week can have serious consequences.

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