The most maddening thing about the Washington Capitals this season is that they have seemed incapable of playing an intense, imposing offensive game while simultaneously showing consistent defensive wherewithal. But even when they managed one of their better all-around performances Tuesday night at Verizon Center, they still couldn’t earn a victory.
The Capitals fell, 2-1, in a shootout to the San Jose Sharks on a goal by Patrick Marleau in the tiebreak that marked their sixth loss in the past eight games and ninth in the past 13. Washington, which had an impressive run of victories outside regulation at the start of the season, has lost five straight games decided in overtime or a shootout.
The defeat also extended the Capitals’ run of futility against San Jose, which has won 17 of 18 games against them since the turn of the century. On this night, though, the Capitals took some solace in the fact they were able to largely contain San Jose, which entered averaging more than three goals per game.
“It’s tough losing two games in a row in a shootout where we’ve been dynamite pretty much all season in them,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Little bit frustrating, but we’ve got to stick to what we’re doing because we’re generating chances and we’re playing well in our own zone. That’s a positive, but we’ve got to figure it out and find ways to win.”
The Capitals kicked off the game with purpose, hungry to atone for a lethargic showing against Buffalo two days earlier with a stronger outing against the best first-period team in the NHL. They outshot San Jose, 7-1, to start and had a few quality scoring chances, but Niemi refused to yield.
“We played better tonight, better puck movement — we moved the puck well, that’s what I think is different,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Sometimes it’s tough. Obviously we know we’re not going to score every shift out there, but I think we’re doing the right things and hopefully it will bounce with us next game.”
After that initial burst, Washington went 10 minutes 18 seconds without firing a shot on Niemi, and in that span the Sharks took the lead.
On a play behind the net, Mike Green sent a pass to Dmitry Orlov that the younger defenseman couldn’t corral, instead tapping behind him to open space. There was no Capital near the play, and the puck drifted out to the right point where Sharks defenseman Jason Demers sent a shot-pass to the slot. Tyler Kennedy redirected the puck through traffic and past Grubauer for a 1-0 advantage at 13:30 of the first period that held to intermission.
The Sharks have outscored their opponents, 52-22, in the opening 20 minutes. So in search of a spark, Coach Adam Oates shuffled his top two lines for the third time in six games, swapping left wings to impact the matchups against a Sharks team that rarely switches up its units mid-game. He moved Eric Fehr to play with Backstrom and Troy Brouwer, while Brooks Laich took up a spot alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Alex Ovechkin.
The alterations brought more jump from the home team as both units created chances — a booming slap shot from Laich on a three-on-two rush by one line and a nifty feed to Backstrom back door by the other. Then the third line carried the momentum over with a grinding cycle shift and lengthy possession time.
Through all this, though, Ovechkin hadn’t put a single shot on goal. But when he did, the star right wing made it count. After a quick pass from Karl Alzner, Ovechkin whipped a wicked one-timer from an awkward angle low in the left circle into the near-side corner of the net, exploiting the smallest of spaces above Niemi’s shoulder to knot the score at 1 at the 12:44 mark of the second period.
“I was actually mad. I was yelling at Alzy for not shooting at the time,” Oates joked. Assistant coach “Calle [Johansson] gave me a hard time, ‘Oh, how can he pass that shot up? Oh, nice goal.’ Those are the goals — maybe a ricochet, but that was a fantastic shot. That’s him.”
Ovechkin’s goal brought life from the crowd, which saluted Grubauer with a “Gruuu” cheer on the ensuing shift as the rookie netminder weathered a flurry of pressure from the Sharks immediately following the goal.
Of Grubauer’s 14 appearances this season, Tuesday’s might have been the game in which he received the most support, not from goals being scored but in terms of the Capitals being able to take care of their own zone, make simple plays to push the puck up ice and keep their foes to the perimeter.
“I thought our defense made good decisions with the puck. For the most part we didn’t force it into a covered player,” Brooks Laich said. “Little details like that at the start of the game were going to matter. And I thought our D did a good job with that.”
As the teams failed to convert on chances that arose late in regulation or in overtime, it became clear that the Capitals and Sharks would head to the shootout for the 14th and 13th times, respectively. While Washington lost out on a victory as Marleau was the only one of six shooters to convert in the tiebreak, players focused more on the method than the result.
“Every game gets better. Like five-on-five . . . we were cycling down low. We were playing basically in their zone and giving up nothing almost,” Grubauer said. “It’s important to get the two points, but we played a great game.”