Quick Bites: 4-line effort crumples Caps

Depth scoring (and Gregor and Dahlen) was revitalized and Reimer stood on his head for the 4-1 win.

The San Jose Sharks were looking for a bounce-back game in head coach Bob Boughner’s 300th NHL game as a coach — although there was no pre-game acknowledgment due to the fact that the Sharks were playing an away game at the Capital One Arena, where they would face-off against the Washington Capitals.

Jonah Gadjovich drew back in the line-up last minute when Rudolfs Balcers did not exit COVID Protocol ahead of the 4 p.m. PT start time as was anticipated, leaving Boughner to shuffle lines unexpectedly. Nicolas Meloche was slotted in as a response to Erik Karlsson’s absence (out until mid-March following his forearm surgery) and while Jake Middleton remained out, Radim Simek was back in. Ryan Merkley was a surprise healthy scratch, and James Reimer was given the start in net.

The game opened with positive indications that the Sharks improved upon what led to their downfall against the Tampa Bay Lightning a few nights earlier. The second and third lines have struggled with scoring, although it’s not for lack of trying. The first step to breaking a scoring drought within the depth scoring is to have a few energetic shifts, and that’s exactly what Andrew Cogliano and Nick Bonino did. They were the first among the Sharks to really drive towards the net in that time period, which set the tone for the rest of the period.

The Sharks came out strong, but the pace of play evened up quickly, with the Capitals matching their brisk pace. Neither team seemed to have an edge, until Noah Gregor, who had been held off the score-sheet for far too long, put it past Ilya Samsonov. The pass came right from Brent Burns’ stick, showing another positive trend: the veterans stepping up to lead, whether that be on the bench, the forecheck, or defensively.

The goal from Gregor opened up the floodgates; both teams were looking for another goal. James Reimer made a big save on Evgeny Kuznetsov, for the Capitals’ third shot on net for the entire period. Then Jeffrey Viel gave up a huge turnover on an ill-timed no-look pass to, um, no one that nearly led to another chance, and then Alexander Barabanov’s own poor pass almost led to another shot from Michal Kempny.

Not to bring up old wounds, but the Sharks have lost many a game on sloppy passes made by younger fringe players. It’s a matter of experience and maturity, but it also could mean less ice-time; the less reliable a player is to make heads-up decisions under pressure, the less likely they are to stay with the big club.

In the final five minutes of the period, the Capitals began to press further, but the score remained 1-0.

The second period began with Garnet Hathaway sliding right into Reimer’s net, although it was less a scoring chance and more a gentle ‘hello.’ For as physical as the game had been up until that point, it was almost shocking that it didn’t devolve into a heavyweight knock-out (Spoiler alert, a fight would happen, but not until much later).

A linesman repaired the ice in the blue paint in front of Reimer after a sprawling save left a crater in the ice, resulting in a brief pause, but once the period was back underway, gameplay became very fast, very quickly, especially compared to the more sedate first period. The Sharks are a team who can (keyword: can) slow the game down in the neutral zone to something more feasible; by no means are they a fast team, with an exception given to Gregor. Being able to clog the neutral zone enough so that the team isn’t constantly playing on the backcheck will be monumental as they move on to the rest of the road trip. Though the Capitals aren’t the fastest bunch around, the Carolina Hurricanes definitely will be.

Meloche, on a beautiful feed from Matt Nieto, snagged his first career NHL goal, as easily and confidently as if he did it all the time. It opened the door to Meloche who decided to shoot the puck, again, on his next shift and continued to jump into the offensive zone.

Meloche’s goal was unexpected, but Nieto’s assist ended a seven-game point drought for him and showed another positive: the beleaguered second and third liners getting back on the scoresheet after a lack of depth-scoring.

In the second half of the second period, the Capitals and Sharks were beginning to play even more physical, with players like Radim Simek and Mario Ferraro taking and giving punishing hits in equal parts. Simek ended the game with six hits, and Ferraro with three. Simek also blocked six shots, his hits and shot block totals the highest of any Sharks skater.

For Simek, who has been a healthy scratch more often than not as of late, this is huge. Creating a big impact on the ice by playing back and securing his own zone, along with opening up the middle for his forwards means that he’s giving Boughner another reason to put him back in the line-up. With a slew of young talent, like Santeri Hatakka and Meloche, and a looming trade deadline combined with the pressure of Erik Karlsson’s absence means that endearing himself to the coaching staff is essential in remaining on the roster.

In the final eight minutes, Dahlen was called for slashing, which sent the Sharks to another successful penalty kill. The special teams’ momentum then went the other way when Dmitry Orlov was called for holding. The Sharks didn’t get much going on the power play, beyond a few big saves from Reimer on shorthanded chances.

While Reimer was excellent with his rebound control, he couldn’t be everywhere, and Meloche stepped in to play goaltender too (Excuse me while I stan Nic Meloche for the next few days after a performance like this).

At the start of the third, Reimer was hanging on to his shutout bid with both hands and a series of phenomenal saves, and the Sharks were up, 2-0.

The two-goal lead, and the shutout, didn’t last; Daniel Sprong put the puck past Reimer right off the opening faceoff. The goal began an onslaught from the Capitals, as they searched for a tying goal. The Sharks were able to break the puck out of their own zone a few times, leading to a Gadjovich chance, but the Capitals had all the momentum in the opening ten minutes of the final frame.

The Capitals are known for their right-shot play off the faceoff, and they aren’t the only team who will be taking notes on the Sharks’ lack of defensive plays to stymie those chances. They’re hard to predict, but San Jose could stand to be more aware off the opening faceoff in their own zone.

In the latter half of the third, the Sharks began to look a little tired, and there were some poor puck placement decisions from lazy passes that nearly came back to bite them. Lazy passes have been the bane of the team’s existence and there was simply no room for error against the Capitals, who are liable to take advantage of every minute mistake in their own zone, and turn it into a scoring opportunity.

Not leaning into bad habits when pinching or under pressure will be key as San Jose moves on to face the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, whose transitions games are already fast, even without the extra giveaways from Sharks forwards.

It didn’t help the Capitals’ momentum when they were given a power play off a bench minor for delay of game. Reimer stood on his head, Nieto went on an ultimately unsuccessful short-handed break and the Sharks barely escaped with a lead intact. It was a moment of weakness for defensive zone coverage, but unlike last game, the Sharks were able to break the puck out of their own zone and keep pushing.

With barely three minutes left, Jonathan Dahlen scored, his first goal in what felt like forever. It was another positive to hold onto. Dahlen had been frustrated with his play as of late, as well as Gregor, and their wavering confidence had led to a plateau in production and on-ice presence, handcuffing their own lines. Now that they’ve both shaken off the cobwebs, they should be more comfortable shooting first, instead of hesitating with the puck. If there’s one thing Boughner likes, it’s when his forwards level shot after shot on net.

Just look at Dahlen’s face, and you’ll see his pure joy after scoring:

With under 20 seconds on the clock, Cogliano skated the puck right into an empty net to break his own scoreless streak (it seemed only fitting), and the game wrapped with a tidy 4-1 victory. I’ve said it enough times in this article, but the word ‘positive’ is huge with this win; if the loss against Tampa was a wake-up call, this win against one of the top-rated teams is a snooze button (it’s a poor metaphor, but you understand). This game was about the team’s identity: physical (35 hits to Washington’s 40), self-sacrificing for teammates (23 blocked shots) and putting quick shots on net (30 shots on goal, and goals from the non-typical goal-scorers).

The win proves that the Sharks are capable of hanging with the big guns, and gives them a much-needed boost of confidence before the gauntlet that is the rest of the road trip. It also helps that Reimer was excellent, with 32 saves on 33 (high-quality) shots and a .970 save percentage — riding a hot goaltender against a team like Tampa or Carolina could be a difference-maker.

Oh, and Gadjovich and Hathaway fought after the clock ran out, so no penalties (because the game was over), but plenty of entertainment for the fans in attendance at the Capital One Arena; plus Gadjovich got a big hug from Reimer after the linesmen eventually pulled them off each other. Maybe the adrenaline rush from the big win and a big road trip hit a little late.