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Newcomers power the Capitals to an 8-3 shellacking of San Jose

Craig Smith scored twice in his fourth game with the Capitals, an 8-3 win over the Sharks. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
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SAN JOSE — As they prepared to warm up Saturday afternoon, the Washington Capitals sent rookie Vincent Iorio onto the ice alone. The 20-year-old defenseman grinned as he took a lap around the net and fired a few shots in half-empty SAP Center as he completed a rite of passage reserved for players about to make their NHL debut.

Iorio eventually was joined by two more defensemen making their first appearance with Washington: Rasmus Sandin, acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, and Gabriel Carlsson, who along with Iorio had rushed to catch a flight Thursday after both were called up from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.

The Capitals are confronting traditions they are not accustomed to staging this late in the season, but after an exhausting week in which the organization held a sell-off for the first time in 16 years and traded away five veterans, an 8-3 win over the San Jose Sharks doubled as a showcase for their newcomers. It included three assists for Sandin, two for Carlsson and another for Iorio. His first NHL point came late in the third period on a surreal feed to captain Alex Ovechkin.

“I never thought I would dream of that,” Iorio said afterward as team employees prepared to present both Iorio and Ovechkin with goal pucks to commemorate a memorable night in which the Capitals erupted for eight goals in the final 40 minutes and made clear they intend to go down swinging, no matter how much of an uphill climb reaching the postseason might be with 18 games remaining.

Saturday’s performance was full of surprises. It included four goals in the second period after the Capitals spotted the lowly Sharks a 2-0 lead; two goals in that surge were scored by newly acquired forward Craig Smith, who batted in his second score off a feed from Sandin to make it 4-2. It included a goal from Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had landed a one-year contract extension a day earlier, and another from defenseman Matt Irwin, who scored his first of the season off an assist from Carlsson.

Washington, which had won just twice in its previous nine games, entered the day in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and five points out of the second wild-card berth. Its free fall out of the playoff picture had begun just 20 days earlier against the Sharks in an ugly loss at Capital One Arena that began a six-game skid. And while the Capitals avenged that loss against a team that has won just six times on home ice this season, both teams looked radically different this time after a flurry of moves before the trade deadline.

Saturday got off to a rocky start for Washington, which was outshot 20-5 in the first period as San Jose built a 2-0 lead on goals by Tomas Hertl and Alexander Barabanov.

Without three of its top defensemen — star John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Martin Fehervary sat out — Washington had to lean on a quartet of young players on the back end with an average age of 22: Sandin, Iorio, Carlsson and Alex Alexeyev, who was playing in just his second game since January. Those players held up after being gashed in the first period, then chipped in on the offensive end as the Capitals picked up the pace.

“I thought it was awful in the first period. I had no idea what I was doing at times,” Sandin said. “But as a team, we stepped up. … It was a lot of fun out there.”

The Capitals had 25 shots on goal in the final two periods and received a spark from the 33-year-old Smith. He scored his first at 8:36 of the second period, and Aube-Kubel tied it at 2 with a wrister from the right circle that beat San Jose goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen at 11:30. Irwin teed off on a one-timer off a feed from Carlsson at 15:28, then Sandin set up another Smith goal with a dish in front of the crease to make it 4-2 at 19:02.

“We knew [the newcomers] were going to come with energy,” Smith said. “We’ve all been there. It seems like you have endless energy on that day.”

The onslaught continued in the third, which included goals from T.J. Oshie and Dylan Strome and two from Ovechkin — one on which Carlsson earned a secondary assist and another that Iorio set up by wrapping around San Jose’s net and dropping off the puck for Ovechkin, who boosted his career goal total to 815. They embraced each other after the play, a bridge between the present and the future for an organization that has undergone so much change over the past week.

“Just realizing that I have the Caps gear on and I’m part of this team now,” Iorio said, “it’s pretty special.”

Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ win:

Jensen, Fehervary still out

Jensen (upper body) and Fehervary (lower body) missed Saturday’s game after being injured in Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime win at the Anaheim Ducks. Neither injury is thought to be a long-term issue; General Manager Brian MacLellan told reporters Friday that the prognosis for Jensen in particular is “a little more positive than we originally thought.”

Carlson makes strides

Carlson has been out since late December after being hit in the side of the head with a slap shot. He has been progressing in recent weeks while working with skating coach Wendy Marco, and MacLellan said the team has the 33-year-old on a timetable to return. Whether the Capitals are still in the playoff hunt later this month won’t affect the decision to bring him back, MacLellan said.

“Near the end of March, in that time frame, is when he can get serious about seeing if he can come back,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s going to be on him, how he’s progressing, how he feels, and we’ll kind of make a decision with him and our staff.”