Sharks Gameday: Hot and Hotterer

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7:30 PST
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21-15-2, 44 points 22-11-4, 48 points
9th in Eastern Conference 3rd in Western Conference
Television
CSN-CA (HD)
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Japers Rink
Washington Post

The Washington Capitals are inextricably linked with the San Jose Sharks. And it’s not solely their NHL-record 17 game losing streaks during the 1974-75 and 1992-93 seasons respectively, although that does strengthen the bond of solidarity between the teams. It’s because both teams – and both teams’ captains – have been labeled as incurable playoff chokers, destined to dominate the regular season and consistently fall short in the playoffs.

For the past four seasons, both teams have won their divisions. Both teams have won a President’s Trophy for the best team in the regular season as well. Each has a roster filled with high-class talent and depth that many teams could only dream of. Yet, neither team has made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The two captains – Joe Thornton and Alexander Ovechkin – have been accused of lacking heart as if they were that girl on Grey’s Anatomy a few years ago, who literally had no heart. Ovechkin because he’s Russian, and Thornton because he scored no points in a playoff series when he played with broken ribs.

Thus, the teams have become descriptors of each other; San Jose is "the Caps of the West" and Washington is "the Sharks of the East." And despite recent efforts by the Sharks in particular, neither team will fully shake their reputation until they win the Stanley Cup, and their captain is named the Conn Smythe winner. Really, the only differences between the teams are that the Sharks don’t draft Russians and the Capitals are deemed worthy to play in Winter Classics.

As with the Sharks, expectations are high for the Capitals during the regular season. The fans do not hope for a playoff berth, but expect one. After started the season off hot with a seven game win streak, the Capitals posted a 5-9-1 record that included listless play from their stars. Despite accruing a record that San Jose’s opponent on Thursday would gladly take, the Capitals fired head coach Bruce Boudreau four years and six days after he was first hired.

Hired in his place was Dale Hunter, former coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, in a move that was seen as inevitable by many of their fans. While the last coach the Capitals hired mid-season drastically improved their play and won the Jack Adams as coach of the year, Hunter seems to only improve their record minimally. With Boudreau behind the bench, the Capitals went 12-9-1, on pace for 93 points. Since Hunter took over, they have gone 9-6-1, on pace for 97 points. Both totals would have been good enough for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference last season, although neither would have afforded them home ice.

But perhaps most important to the Capitals, Alex Ovechkin has started playing like Alex Ovechkin again; that is, playing with his trademark goal-scoring enthusiasm that has been lacking since last season.

The Sharks and Capitals have only played each other 29 times, with the Sharks by far dominating the match-up. The Sharks have gone 19-9-1 against the Capitals, good for their third-best winning percentage against any NHL team. On the Capitals’ side of things, they have only done worse against the now-defunct Cleveland Barons. The Capitals have not won in San Jose since October 30, 1993 – the first month of play in what is now known as HP Pavilion.

But just because history is on the Sharks’ side doesn’t mean this is a game they should win – if hockey followed history, the Montreal Canadiens would have won a Cup this past decade, and we all know that didn’t happen. Not only is Ovechkin playing like Ovechkin, but Nicklas Backstrom and enigmatic Russian* Alex Semin look to return from injury against the Sharks, and the Capitals are on a five game winning streak.

*When talking about Alexander Semin, writers are required to use the phrase "enigmatic Russian." It’s in a pamphlet that’s sent out every year.

Prediction: Sharks win 5-2. Goals by Pavelski, Wingels, Couture, Burns, and McGinn, all on the power play. Penalty kill goes 5-for-5 as Douglas Murray remembers how much fun it is for him to play against Ovechkin.

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