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Capitals at Sharks Preview: Will Erik Karlsson make his return against reigning champions?

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The Sharks are in a better place than last time they saw the Caps.

Jan 22, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; San Jose Sharks center Tomas Hertl (48) celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal on Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (70) in overtime at Capital One Arena. The Sharks won 7-6 in overtime. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks (34-16-7, 1st Pacific) host the Washington Capitals (31-19-7, 2nd Metropolitan) tonight at SAP Center on the hunt for their seventh win in a row. These two teams last met three weeks ago, capping off a less-than-stellar road trip for the Sharks with a 7-6 overtime victory heading into the All-Star Break. The game featured hat tricks from both Alex Ovechkin and Tomas Hertl.

The Sharks have scored at least five goals in each of their last three games and they haven’t allowed more than two goals against since last facing the Caps. Both facts bode well for the Sharks coming into tonight.

Inconsistent Offense

The Capitals are more than capable of scoring five-or-more goals, having scored at least five goals 16 times this season. They last ran the scoreboard up on Feb. 11 in a 6-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

The Caps got themselves shut out the very next night against Columbus. Through two periods, the Caps had only taken seven shots. Our SB Nation siter site Japers’ Rink noted that three of the Capitals’ four goalless games have come in the last month and a half. Their offense isn’t infallible, but they can still pose a threat.

Karl-ing Back to You

Erik Karlsson skated for the first time since the All-Star Game at yesterday’s practice and appeared to be fully practicing with the team. While Karlsson didn’t give a definitive answer, he sounded as though he was coming back when he spoke to the media afterward.

Karlsson has been out of the lineup for just short of a month with what head coach Peter DeBoer called a groin strain.

Prior to the injury, Karlsson had been regularly playing over 22 minutes a game. In his last appearance, he skated nearly 26 minutes over 26 shifts. If Karlsson indeed returns to the lineup tonight, hopefully it’s because he’s ready to skate heavy minutes against the Caps’ main offensive lines, allowing the Sharks to choose the matchups for their defensemen lower on the depth chart.

Neutral Opportunity

The Caps have been pretty bad in the neutral zone recently, and that hurts them on both sides of the puck. The Sharks need to sense those weaknesses and strike.

Two of the Blue Jackets’ goals on Tuesday were scored off rushes that started in the neutral zone. This type of attack seems like it would be especially suited for players like Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Evander Kane and even Marcus Sorensen.

Weak neutral-zone play from the Caps could also give the Sharks an advantage when it comes to line changes. Just wait until the Caps are tired and have to change and zip right on through.

It’s a boon for the defenders too. With the Caps struggling to even reach their attacking zone, the Sharks will likely have to spend less time scrumming on the boards and chasing the Capitals’ passes.

Based on the recent play of both teams, this is absolutely a winnable game for the Sharks. They’ll just need average goaltending, which they’re getting now, and to control possession, which they’ve done all season.

Bold prediction: Another unreasonably high-scoring game. (After all, I predicted a low-scoring shootout game for Jan. 22 and the actual opposite happened. So obviously that means the inverse of what I predict will come true.) I just found out that Timo Meier has never scored a hat trick. I mentioned above that he’s the type of player who could take great advantage of the Capitals’ trouble in the neutral zone. Let’s predict a second-period hat trick for him.