- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As difficult as it is for visiting teams to play at HP Pavilion against the San Jose Sharks, the Washington Capitals were feeling pretty good Saturday night. They had just tied the score early in the third period and silenced a sellout crowd.

Then, 16 seconds later, a collapse. It wasn’t quite like the multigoal implosions players lamented during November’s tailspin, but a turnover and a missed assignment gave the Sharks a goal on the way to a 5-2 victory.

No one wants to take away from Joe Thornton’s behind-the-back pass or Patrick Marleau’s goal, but the Capitals at that moment and throughout the loss learned another tough lesson about momentum, consistency and how hard it is to win on the road.

“We had a couple breakdowns, and against a team like that when you have breakdowns, they make you pay. And tonight they made us pay,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “Against a team like that, you just can’t have those.”

Though players insisted they played well as a team for much of the game, with Jeff Halpern calling it “one of our better games,” mistakes did seem to happen at the worst possible times.

Absent a fast start and the first goal, the Caps responded to the Sharks‘ first salvo just 82 seconds later. But a slashing penalty to forward Matt Hendricks late in the second gave San Jose a power play and the perfect opportunity to take the lead.

Joel Ward’s goal just 44 seconds into the third — his first since Nov. 5 — appeared to deflate the Sharks, until Marleau and Thornton took advantage of shoddy defensive zone play by the Caps.

“I just got the puck in the corner, tried to move it up to our winger. We didn’t get it out, and then Marleau beat me back to the net,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Thornton made a pretty nice play, I guess, and then my guy was wide open. Just missed coverage. It’s a bad goal.”

At a bad time. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun was helpless to stop it. All of a sudden San Jose picked up the attack and again sent Washington into catch-up mode. But it didn’t have to be that way.

“We score a goal, we can get the momentum going. It’s perfect scenario for the road team - 2-2 in the beginning of the third period,” Vokoun said. “Pressure is on them. And we make a mistake like that and it ends up in our net, and after that it’s tough.”

Perhaps the Capitals had played one of their better games, or at least one of their better road games, to that point. But for a team that has struggled away from Verizon Center, these were two points well within its grasp and players knew it.

A disastrous shift, however, started a downward spiral.

“We can’t do it in our zone, that kind of mistake,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “They’re going to cost us a win.”

It wound up doing just that. Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s goal at 8:51 — the third of the game by a San Jose defenseman - broke the game open. Torrey Mitchell’s empty-netter sealed the Caps’ seventh defeat in their past 10 road games.

That’s a troubling trend, albeit not a new one, for Washington, which visits the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night to wrap up the two-game California trip. The Capitals are hoping the lesson learned Saturday night pays off soon.

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