Sharks Gameday: Twins



7:30 PST
30-18-10, 70 points 31-21-6, 68 points
5th in Eastern Conference
7th in Western Conference

98.5 KFOX,
Japers Rink
Washington Post

The first thing I do when NHL releases the new regular season schedule each July is to look up the dates the Sharks are playing the Capitals. Then when the tickets go on sale in September, the first game I buy is the home game against the Capitals. I'm sure I'm not alone and many fans around the league do the same.

Not much to say here, my comrades. Ovechkin is in town!

Besides following the most exciting Russian hockey player since Pavel Bure, it's also been interesting to follow the Capitals because in some ways, they're the Sharks twin in the Eastern Conference. They're the team full of superstars. In terms of talent, most of these superstars are on the offense. In the past few years, just like the Sharks, they've had great regular seasons that were followed by disappointing playoffs. And this year especially - both teams have played up-and-down hockey since the start, sometimes going on long losing streaks and other times beating the best teams in the league. Both teams have had more than an unusual times this season when they failed to score a single goal - Sharks were scoreless seven times so far, the Capitals - eight. And then on other nights, they exploded for many goals - just like the Capitals did yesterday in Anaheim where they scored seven.

It's not just the story of the teams. We can see similar parallels when we look at team captains. Both Alex Ovechkin and Joe Thornton are on their way to their worst offensive seasons in a long time.

Alex Ovechkin has just 22 goals in 58 games and is on pace for 31 goals this season. His worst season in the NHL was his sophomore year when he scored a mere 46. He's still point-a-game player, but the lack of regular goals is not something we've ever seen from the best Russian athlete since Alexander Popov.

Joe Thornton is also under-performing this season. He has three points in eight games in February and is on pace for just 67 points on the season. The projected numbers look so bad I had to do my math three times on the calculator. So few points would be the worst offensive stats for Thornton since he was 21 y.o. - not what we expect from him as he's in his prime.

Much has been written around the league for why Ovechkin may be struggling. Some say he's out of shape, while some say he's pacing himself for playoffs. Others say he's not the same reckless player since his long suspension last season and it's affecting every aspect of his play.  Some even say that the NHL defense finally learned how to defend him. My theory is that it is a bit of all of it, plus self-doubt from facing so much failure last season at the Olympics, then in NHL playoffs and then at the World Championships.. Who wouldn't have a reason to doubt himself?

Not as much has been written about what is wrong with Joe Thornton.  Perhaps his struggles deserve a separate article in the future, but it's still worth mentioning a few points here. Big Joe did step up his defensive game this season and leads the team in takeaways. His forecheck and his play in the defensive zone is what is starting a lot of the attacks by the Sharks. He's also 4th among all Sharks' forwards in shorthanded time on the ice. But when it comes to offense, we don't see the same kind of explosiveness we're used to seeing from Joe. Some of it is no doubt are the offensive struggles of his fellow linemates Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and others who are all having up and down seasons. Joe can't record assists if his teammates aren't scoring. But are they struggling because Thornton is struggling? Also, could it be that Joe is pacing himself for playoffs? Or is the burden of captainship too much to bear, just like in Boston?

Despite all this, both the Capitals and the Sharks seemed to have learned to win games even when their captains are not as visible on the ice. Alex Ovechkin is still the face of the Washington Capitals franchise, just like Joe Thornton is the face of San Jose Sharks. Both teams will need their captains to play at their best when playoffs arrive. I don't expect either team to win their playoffs series without Ovechkin scoring a lot for the Capitals and Thornton being an offensive force to reckon with for the Sharks.

But perhaps learning how to win without their captains is what both teams needed this season come playoffs time. I for one would be the happiest man alive if this is the not last time both teams meet this season.

PREDICTION: Sharks win, 5-4. Ovechkin gets a hat trick while Thornton records four assists on the night - just like in the old days. Somewhere in the Tank a mad Russian is spotted cheering not only every Sharks goal, but also every Ovechkin goal.