Before we get to the game, it needs to be said; the San Jose Sharks purple warm-up jerseys might be the best Hockey Fights Cancer jerseys the NHL has ever seen. That combination of lilac and violet is just ... [chef’s kiss]. Seeing SAP Center decked out in purple with pops of the lavender shirseys the team was giving away in the stands made the special event night extra-festive. Hockey Fights Cancer is one of my favorite promotional nights, and it’s not even the jerseys that get me so hyped. Advocating for cancer research and awareness is always a worthy cause for celebration.
Going into the game the Washington Capitals (and Alex Ovechkin) were running rampant in the East, sitting second in their division with a 10-2-5 record, improving to 11-2-5 after last night. The chance to see the Great 8 compete for Gretzky’s record, plus (what I’m dubbing “Calder watch”) Jonathan Dahlen’s opportunity to overtake Lucas Raymond for the top rookie goal-scorer made for great pre-game energy in SAP Center.
(Upon reflection, it should have been injury watch for Dahlen.)
Kevin Labanc was suspended one game for slew-footing (or for having an untimely fall, depending on who you ask), so San Jose Barracuda forwards Jeffrey Viel and Noah Gregor were called up, with Gregor standing in for Labanc, and Viel a healthy scratch along with defender Santeri Hatakka.
That’s right — Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were back together, but it’s hard to imagine that Hatakka would have made much of a difference if he were in instead. The Sharks had early puck possession in the first, but they were flat-footed, leading to miscues and missed passes, along with a very out-of-character turnover from Jonathan Dahlen straight to the tape of a Caps player. Despite the relatively equal zone time, the Sharks turned it over again and a fast break for the Caps led to Conor Sheary opening scoring.
Toward the end of the period, not only had the Sharks’ healthy scratches walked past me in the press box, but the Capitals’ forwards were walking right past the Sharks’ defense. The Sharks struggled with setting up concentrated zone entries and shutting down their own zone, particularly in front of the net. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Then, disaster struck. Dahlen left the ice hunched over and clutching his arm and headed down to the dressing room for what seemed like a dislocated shoulder. He didn’t return for the rest of the period, and if it does turn out to be a dislocated shoulder, then that’s a big yikes. From someone who’s dislocated their shoulder before (and popped it back in themselves, hey-o), it’s not something I’d wish on anyone.
Soon after, Vlasic took a penalty, which probably didn’t endear him to head coach Bob Boughner, and Ovechkin scored his 13th goal of the season on the Capitals’ power play.
I hate to say it, but it didn’t get better from there. Where one might expect the team to rally around their hurt rookie, the Sharks gave too much space to the Capitals to work with. Balcers stepped in on the top line for Dahlen. Eventually, Noah Gregor, who had been playing like a man possessed, took a cross-checking penalty.
It was this penalty that closed out the period in a wild-west style span of events. First, Couture drew a penalty that evened it up to 4-on-4. Adin Hill was sent sprawling out of the trapezoid by a Capitals skater, play continued, and Hill took off for the bench as the puck went the other way on a delayed call. The Sharks got an extra attacker, couldn’t score even when their penalty ended and it was 5-on-3, and then Burns missed an empty net as the period expired.
The Sharks started the second on the power play (unsuccessful), and Dahlen was back on the bench, although not for long. I loved the commitment from Andrew Cogliano to feed Nick Bonino, but Bonino’s been so snake-bitten through this season that it seemed to have transferred to the rest of his line as well. It wasn’t just that — the Sharks couldn’t seem to control rebounds off their own shots, or settle pucks down in the offensive zone.
It didn’t help that even when in the Sharks’ offensive zone, the Capitals were marking them so well that the Sharks couldn’t get the lateral space to open up any shooting lanes. And when they did, it was either a pad save from Ilya Samsonov, or a post. Or a missed opportunity entirely.
Their luck worsened. After two shifts early in the second, Dahlen was back down to the dressing room and it was announced shortly after by Sharks PR that he would not return for the rest of the game.
To start the third period, the Sharks were on their way to being shut out, with the Capitals leading, 2-0.
The third period was much of the same, with hesitating shots and spurts of energy that fizzled out quickly, even if the period was the Sharks’ best, most consistent effort. Despite that, the Sharks lost to the Capitals, 4-0, after a late goal from repeat offender Sheary and an empty-net goal from Ovechkin.
It’s difficult to hold it against the team though, considering the stress of the past two and half weeks.
Was it their rigorous travel schedule and residual difficulties in coming back from COVID confusion that led to their lack of communication and chemistry? Honestly, probably. The Sharks have had a revolving door of linemates, first due to COVID, and now because of injuries. Lane Pederson’s absence and Labanc’s meant that while Gregor got a start for the Sharks, the line combinations hadn’t been able to settle in.
Combined with the mental and physical exhaustion of their recent road trips, I’m not surprised the Sharks were tired this game. It’s a disappointment considering their fight to climb back up in the standings, but not every game is going to be at 100 percent effort from anyone, even without the hockey gods seemingly stymieing the Sharks at every turn.