SAN JOSE — It required two goals that deflected off Sharks and into their own net, and a shootout, but the Washington Capitals finally ended a 20-plus-year drought between wins in San Jose.
Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the shootout to give Washington a 3-2 victory over the vaunted Sharks that marked its first in Northern California since Oct. 30, 1993. In present context, the triumph marked the end to a successful three-game road trip against the top rough-and-tumble teams of the Pacific Division.
The Capitals became just the second of 16 teams that visited the three California-based squads — San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim — consecutively to make it through the gauntlet having gained five of possible six points. It also capped a five-game stretch in which Washington has captured nine of 10 points to surge back into the thick of the playoff hunt.
“You come out [on the road], you knew it was three good teams,” Coach Adam Oates said. “I think they were just mentally ready to play good hockey, right from the first game in Anaheim, you knew they were a good team and I think the guys were just mentally ready to do that.”
The win pushed Washington up to 79 points, tying the Detroit Red Wings in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and sitting one back of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who occupy the first wild-card slot. The Capitals remain out of the playoff picture, though, because Detroit wins the first tiebreaker with more regulation and overtime victories.
But this result was far from guaranteed when the Capitals faced a one-goal deficit in the third period, until Chris Brown recorded his first NHL goal to tie the contest with 7 minutes 30 seconds remaining in regulation.
“It’s a pretty special feeling obviously,” said Brown, who was acquired in the trade that sent Martin Erat to Phoenix. “But we got the win, that’s the most important – got the two points and kept the season alive.”
The evening started with an unexpected switch in goal for the Capitals. Jaroslav Halak had been scheduled to make his eighth straight start after going 4-2-1 with a .935 save percentage and 2.13 goals against average since being acquired at the trade deadline but was held out because of a lower-body injury.
Braden Holtby, making just his first start since March 6 at Boston and just his 18th start since Dec. 1, finished with 34 saves and despite the infrequent workload was stellar, particularly late in regulation as the Capitals vied to come away with at least one point.
“I was given the opportunity to start tonight and I wanted to be there for the guys like they’ve been playing the last little while,” said Holtby, who earned his first win since March 1. “I was fortunate to be able to pitch in.”
Oates made a point of prioritizing a strong start Saturday night, knowing the Capitals couldn’t afford to wait until the second period to find their game against the supercharged Sharks. They followed the instruction, coming out with a heavy forecheck that yielded steady offensive zone time and even jumped out 1-0 despite not putting the puck in the net themselves.
The third line did what they do best, grinding away to keep possession alive in the opposing end, until Eric Fehr fired a shot on net. Fehr’s attempt was blocked by San Jose defenseman Justin Braun, who turned to clear the puck out of the zone but instead banked it off of winger Matt Nieto in front sending it back into the cage as Antti Niemi (23 saves) was still on the right side of the crease. Fehr was credited with his 12th goal of the season to put Washington ahead at 11:25 of the first.
“The bounces, those are unfortunate. Those kind of things happen so fast, you can’t really react to them,” Nieto said. “They didn’t give up — they kept coming and coming, and we unfortunately lost.”
The fortuitous bounce and subsequent advantage galvanized the visitors. Washington clogged up the neutral zone, picking off passes to muddle the Sharks’ breakouts and slow their attack. But for as well as the Capitals played the majority of the first period, one mistake unraveled the progress.
A turnover by Mike Green below the goal line in the final minute of play in the period resulted in a goal by Patrick Marleau that tied the contest with 5.6 seconds remaining in the first. It was exactly the type of momentum-sapping error that Washington didn’t need and it appeared to snowball as the Sharks began to dominate possession. Through 40 minutes, San Jose outshot the visitors 25-12 and early in the third took its first lead on a breakaway goal by James Sheppard.
Washington received another piece of good fortune, though, when a hardworking shift by the fourth line resulted in a wide-open chance for Brown in the slot. He fired a shot and the puck ricocheted off Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle and into the net pulling Washington even at 2-2 with 12:30 gone in the third. Holtby and the Capitals’ penalty kill, called upon with 2:18 remaining in regulation when Alex Ovechkin went off for high sticking, buttoned down the defensive zone to withstand San Jose’s late push.
“We had a pretty good feeling in there that the guys were going to get the job done,” Fehr said. “We really wanted this win and the guys did a great job battling.”