The San Jose Sharks (15-12-1, 4th in the Pacific) have to be pretty happy with how they’ve played lately. They won 11 games in November and clawed their way back into the playoff picture. Now, they face a true test against the Washington Capitals (19-4-5, 1st in the Metropolitan).
When you think of the Capitals, your initial thought is Alexander Ovechkin. The Russian forward leads the team with 20 goals this season, on pace for another 50-goal season. Trouble is, it’s not just Ovechkin leading the charge. In fact, the highest scorer on the team is defenseman John Carlson, who is putting together a Norris Trophy type year with 37 points (8 goals, 29 assists) and a plus-16 rating. He truly drives the play from the backend.
Work your way down the roster and it doesn’t get any better. Ovechkin plays wing alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov (11 goals, 17 assists, 28 points) and Tom Wilson (10 goals, 9 assists, 19 points). Wilson also brings some grit to the game with 29 PIMs already this season. The second line of Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie is just as formidable.
On the backend, there’s Carlson leading the way. He’s paired with Michal Kempny (3 goals, 8 assists, 11 points).
Starting goaltender Braden Holtby will likely be in net for the Capitals tonight. Holtby is 13-2-4 this season. His goaltending numbers aren’t great, he averages more than two goals against per game and his save percentage is .867 this season. Of course, as Sharks fans saw last season, when you can score in bunches, goaltending matters a little less.
The last time we saw the Capitals...
The last time the Capitals visited SAP Center it was a game the Sharks would like to forget. Valentine’s Day 2019 and the Capitals’ top players left Sharks’ fans with heartbreak. A 5-1 win led by Oshie, who had two goals on the night.
However, jump back a little further and you’ll see the game that could play out tonight. On Jan. 22, 2019 at Capital One Arena it was a game that kept you on the edge of your seat until the very end.
A little reminder for you. Ovechkin scored a hat trick and it looked like the Sharks were going to skate off losers. But with one second remaining in regulation, Evander Kane scored the tying goal and it was headed to overtime. That’s when Tomas Hertl equalized Ovechkin’s hat trick with a hat trick of his own. The Sharks won 7-6.
With both Martin Jones and Holtby allowing in the occasional soft goal, tonight’s game could be a highlight reel night.
The only way that’s going to work out in the Sharks’ favor is if they figure out how to get the power play going. The Sharks have not scored a power play goal since Nov. 17 against the Detroit Red Wings. They haven’t converted on their last 17 attempts.
Meanwhile, Washington’s power play is ranked fifth in the league right now, converting on approximately one of every four power plays. While the Sharks’ penalty kill is still tops in the league, operating at 91 percent, it has not fared well against some of the top power plays in the league.
Against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 29, the Sharks gifted the Bruins with eight power plays and Boston converted on two of them. At the time, Boston had the best power play in the league.
In the loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 19, the Oilers scored on one of the two power plays they were given. Edmonton currently has the top ranked power play in the league.
Top power plays know how to exploit the Sharks and it’s important that San Jose stay out of the box and limit the chances it gives Ovechkin, Oshie, Carlson, Kuznetsov, etc. tonight.
The fourth line
Playing a team like the Washington Capitals means that everyone has to be on their game and that includes the fourth line. The only way San Jose is going to beat the Caps tonight is if they roll four lines.
San Jose’s fourth line has looked better lately. Noah Gregor is gaining confidence and he’s starting to drive the net. Melker Karlsson isn’t a scoring machine, but he does bring that penalty kill prowess that will keep him in the lineup. Dylan Gambrell scored in the last game and I’ll cross my fingers and hope that means he’s starting to make a push for a permanent roster spot. All three of these guys need to be going hard tonight if the Sharks have a shot at winning.
Bold prediction: Lots of goals tonight, but I’m predicting that Jones comes out the winner. He’s played well recently and this will be a great chance for him to prove he’s turned a corner. No goals for Ovechkin tonight, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Erik Karlsson manage to shut Ovie’s line down. Sharks skate off winners of a 6-4 game.
That’s my prediction. Drop yours below and we’ll see you at game time.