Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 3-2 shootout win against the Sharks

March 23

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – After a wait of more than 20 years the Capitals came through with a timely, 3-2 shootout win here over the Sharks on Saturday night that keeps them moving up in the playoff race. It also marked Braden Holtby’s first win since March 1 as he made an unexpected start when Jaroslav Halak was held out because of a lower-body injury.

Five thoughts on the win in San Jose:

1. Kill it off. Penalty killing hasn’t offered much in the way of confidence for the Capitals this season. But in the last six games, the Capitals’ shorthanded play has become much steadier, thwarting each of the last 19 opposing power plays. Go back eight games, to March 8 against Phoenix, they’ve successfully killed off 23 of the last 25 minors.

Washington’s penalty kill was 3 for 3 against the Sharks. None was more critical than when Alex Ovechkin was whistled for high-sticking with 2:18 remaining in regulation, threatening to keep the visitors from obtaining even a point.

The Capitals used two quartets – first Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer with John Carlson and Karl Alzner, then Joel Ward and Jason Chimera with Jack Hillen and Patrick Wey.

The Sharks put four shots on goal, which Holtby rendered ineffective,  Brouwer and Ward each blocked a shot and Washington’s fight to push the game to overtime could be felt all the way up in the rafters at the Shark Tank. The forwards hounded San Jose’s skaters at the point and broke up passes, and everyone involved managed to take away the Sharks’ multiple options while working to make sure Holtby could see the oncoming pucks.

“In a situation like that you know there’s going to be a lot of traffic,” Holtby said. “Our guys are going to sell out [to block] so you have to work even harder to make sure that you pitch in as well. I made a couple saves that the guys gave me a lane to see the puck and it was a great kill by us.”

2. Power play. As sturdy as the penalty kill was against the Sharks, the man advantage lacked its usual zing. The Capitals fired only three shots on Antti Niemi during their six minutes on the power play – just one through the first four – and weren’t often able to even set up in the offensive zone. When they did gain the blue line with possession, San Jose disrupted their passing flow or upset the timing enough to allow Niemi to respond when passes did get to the Capitals’ triggermen.

Given that the power play is Washington’s most steady source of offense this season, any span in which it is unable to generate quality chances could prove to be problematic. But the team managed to counteract it against the Sharks with a pair of fortuitous bounces.

3. The fourth line. While the configuration of Dustin Penner and Tom Wilson flanking first-time center Chris Brown has played together for only two games, Coach Adam Oates’s decision to have size be the preeminent quality of that unit has persisted for a few weeks now.

The approach paid off in the last two games against Los Angeles and San Jose as the trio crashed through all three zones, playing the type of ‘heavy’ hockey along the walls that the grueling Pacific Division is known for. In both contests they tilted the ice during their shifts, cycling down low against teams that don’t often allow opponents to accomplish that feat.

“I think it’s something that especially our line talked about before the game,” Brown said. “We need to be big and establish that forecheck and it ended up working out for us.”

In the third period, with the Capitals trailing 2-1, Oates put out the fourth line to establish territory and offer some momentum. What resulted was Wilson forcing play down low, winning a battle to bump Scott Hannan (yes, him) off the puck, Penner corralling the loose puck and sending a pass out front to a wide-open Brown. The 23-year-old forward fired a shot on net that deflected off Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle and past Niemi to tie the contest at 12:30 of the third.

Oates was pleased with the entire shift, including the fact that Brown – playing center for just the second game in his career at the Capitals’ request – won a defensive-zone faceoff on his weak side against Logan Couture to start the sequence.

“I put them in some tough situations and before his goal he won a goal on his off side in our own end. It was a big draw, they went down the ice against a good line and made great plays,” Oates said. “You have to be able to trust them. You have to be able to trust all your players and I have a good feeling about that line.”

4. Fluky bounce. The Capitals have had their share of lucky bounces this year but Saturday marked the first time this season that all of their goals came off odd deflections. That said, both of them were examples of the Capitals making their own luck. Brown’s tally was the result of solid plays by the fourth line and, in the first period, the third line did what it does best leading up to the Sharks’ Justin Braun banking a clearing attempt off his teammate Matt Nieto and into the net.

As the third line worked the cycle, the puck popped out to the right circle where Eric Fehr flung a shot on net. Niemi made the save and a rebound popped out in front. When Braun attempted to clear, the puck pinballed into his own net. The tally was credited to Fehr, his 12th goal of the season, though it was changed twice as the players sorted out with scorekeepers who touched the puck before it ricocheted in off Nieto.

“Somehow it came to my stick; I thought I got a pretty good shot off along the ice,” Fehr said. “I guess they tried to clear it and it somehow ended up in the back of the net.”

5. A different shootout setup. Before Saturday the only Capitals shootout in which Alex Ovechkin did not receive a try was Nov. 2 against Florida, when he was out with a shoulder injury. The star winger hasn’t had much luck in the tiebreak this year, going 2 for 15 with the only goals coming on Oct. 3 against Calgary and Nov. 29 against Montreal. He had gone eight consecutive tries without scoring leading into the shootout with the Sharks.

Oates didn’t use Ovechkin in his initial three shooters in San Jose, opting instead to go with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eric Fehr and Backstrom. Kuznetsov, who is now 2 for 2, and Backstrom scored to seal the victory.

So why change things up? “Give Ovi a break. It’s been too many in a row,” Oates said.

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