In April, every team approaching the Stanley Cup playoffs is focused on getting two points. In October, this game is about what new CSN-California broadcaster Jamie Baker described as “details and habits.” There will be much for the San Jose Sharks to examine in the wake of blowing a three-goal lead to the Washington Capitals Tuesday, Oct. 14.
At the same time, that examination shows a silver lining even among the clouds. Beyond that, the pictured stars show the balance of play-making talent in a very entertaining contest with end-to-end action, stunning goals and a shootout.
Sure, the 142:51 shutout streak to start the 2014-15 NHL season was followed by allowing five goals in 32:34. Sure, Antti Niemi saved the first 45 shots he faced this season and then was beaten by five of the next 20. Sure, San Jose blew 3-0 and 4-1 leads held into the second period while registering just 23 shots on goal.
The Sharks also scored at least three goals in their third straight game to open the 2014-15 NHL season, including blue-line and checking-line scores. Niemi could not really be blamed on any of the goals and made some incredible saves to get the game to a shootout. They scored five goals and the two they gave up in 76 seconds of the third period were really the result of Alex Ovechkin showing he is the best hockey sniper in the world and giving the Capitals a jolt with a big goal.
The goal that made ended the three-goal cushion for good happened because Matt Irwin fell down (again), but he either scored a goal or drew a penalty on his first three shifts of the 2014-15 NHL season. Just 83 seconds into the game, he took the puck toward the high slot after a faceoff by Joe Thornton and fired it into the corner.
Irwin’s next shift drew a penalty and he scored on his next during the ensuing power play—Matt Nieto fired through a screen by Tommy Wingels, who whacked at the rebound and thus sent the puck to the open side. He also had a big block on an Ovechkin shot late in the game.
Irwin was not the only new lineup addition to score. When John Scott scored his third goal in over 200 career NHL games on a semi-breakaway assisted by Adam Burish (and not surprisingly Brent Burns), it was no surprise that Braden Holtby was pulled before the mid-point of the opening frame. He had only stopped four of seven shots.
After that, the scoring dried up until San Jose’s shutout streak ended nine seconds into a penalty kill. Troy Brouwer won a faceoff against Patrick Marleau and Nicklas Backstrom got the puck to John Carlson, who skated to the high slot and passed to Ovechkin on the left wing. Washington’s captain sent the puck in front of the net, where it caromed off to Marcus Johansson for the rebound goal.
San Jose got the three-goal lead back in under three minutes when Justin Braun chipped the puck up the boards to Joe Thornton in the neutral zone. Joe Pavelski took the chip-pass from the play-making former captain, slid into the slot and shot once Tomas Hertl was at the net. The wrist-shot goal took a detour off the shoulder of goalie Justin Peters and the skate of Eric Fehr 5:27 into the second period.
The Capitals needed just 68 seconds to bring the lead back down to two. Evgeni Kuznetsov advanced the puck up the right wing and sent it across the crease, where Liam O’Brien tried to control it. The puck bounced out to Mike Green to the open side, and while he was unable to pull the trigger he did skate back to the point and fire it through traffic.
It took just 34 seconds for Washington to close within one. Fehr got the puck to Backstrom, who fed Ovechkin above the circle on Niemi’s stick side. The 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist had no chance once the four-time Rocket Richard winner came into the high slot unguarded.
It was 4-3 before the game was half over, but that lead held until the second minute of the third period. That was when Tye McGinn got the puck moving the other direction, where Chris Tierney fed Tommy Wingels beautifully on the attack. Peters turned away the first wrist-shot attempt, but could not stop the rebound from being jammed home.
For a while it looked like that lead would hold, but Burns was called for tripping when he tried to chip the puck away from one of the Capitals behind the net. After having a shot blocked and missing the net on the ensuing power play, Ovechkin unleashed a rocket into the corner of the net to bring his team within one goal.
It was just over a minute later that Brouwer took advantage of Irwin’s fall and beat Niemi from the slot when a miscommunication or missed assignment leaving Nieto and Burns merely in the way. The Sharks were once again tied in a game that they had led by at least two goals for over 34 minutes in.
Niemi was a big reason they survived until overtime, and a power play that crossed from regulation into overtime was active but did not score. Washington got the lone shot in the extra session but could not score on any of their three shootout attempts. Kuznetsov beat Niemi with a great move but his forehand rang off the post. Pavelski used a more subtle move but put the second San Jose attempt (Peters saved Marleau’s attempt), so the shootout was over when Fehr missed the net.
Irwin’s start was a bit of a surprise in that it meant scratching the developing Mirco Mueller because Scott Hannan played his 1000th game Tuesday—not in front of the home fans of the team that drafted him, but a crowd that was familiar to him. The journeyman was with the Capitals for most of the 2010-11 NHL season, and also played for the Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators.
For the game, the Sharks had a slight edge in the circle (33-32) and an equal number of giveaways (six) but surprisingly 10 fewer takeaways (12-2). That translated into 14 fewer shot attempts and 11 fewer on goal, yet they managed half the hits (26-13) and only an equal number of blocked shots (24).
Defensively, this was not a very good game. When that foundation of this team—indeed part of San Jose’s identity—left it last spring, so did success. It will be interesting to examine the approach of the players moving forward on the 2014-15 NHL season. Was it good enough to come out with two points or will they focus on correcting these breakdowns?
Nevertheless, breakdowns will happen on occasion with a young team opening up an Eastern Conference road trip. It is good to know that when a defensive staple is not there, the questionable secondary scoring can come through. Any two-point game three time zones away from home is a passing grade, especially against a team with expectations of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs.