Sharks rookie Logan Couture scores game winning goal, Niemi earns second straight shutout in 2-0 win over Washington Capitals
The San Jose Sharks have often been referred to as the Washington Capitals East, a high powered offensive team that struggled to live up to expectations in the playoffs. This season there are no ’82-game preseason’ comments from the San Jose press. A 6-game losing streak proved to the Sharks locker room that they can no longer score their way out of problems. With 9 teams separated by 6 points at the end of the month, it quickly became evident that in the Western Conference, every point mattered. Teams that didn’t scratch and claw in January and February, were going to be in the basement looking up in March and April.
Tuesday night at the Verizon Center the Sharks turned in their second straight shutout against an Eastern Conference foe. In the third period, rookie Logan Couture (24) and defenseman Dan Boyle (6) provided all the offense the Sharks would need en route to an impressive 2-0 win.
Heading into the game the 21-year old Couture was tied with former Blackhawk Steve Larmer (1982) for the most road game winning goals as a rookie in NHL history with 6. He was also tied with Washington Capitals sniper Alexander Ovechkin for the NHL lead with 7 overall game winning goals. Both marks would fall with his 24th goal of the season 11:55 into the third period.
Linemate Ben Eager drove into the offensive zone, then pulled up inside of the blueline to give Couture time to drive the net. A touch, backhand flip pass by Eager sprung him down the left wing. Couture snapped a shot that beat goaltender Michal Neuvirth from 36 feet out.
“Husky made a great up pass to Eags standing on the blueline, he took his time and made an ubelievable pass,” Couture said of the sequence that lead to the goal. “Their d-man was a little late coming over. I took a look quickly to see if Welly was coming down. I didn’t have a good enough angle to make the pass. As soon as the puck was on my stuck, I looked and the goalie was deep. He was probably thinking pass as well, so I fired it.”
Earlier in the third, it was Couture who drove the zone and pulled up just inside the blueline, this time on the right side. As Eager and Wellwood drove to the front of the net, Couture fired a hard pass that resulted in two quick scoring chances. Defenseman Jason Demers hammered a long rebound for a third shot on Michal Neuvirth.
The Sharks would put a second goal on the board 2:12 after Couture’s goal. This time it was Dany Heatley playing the role of Joe Thornton, distributing the puck from behind the net with his back to the glass. Heatley hit Boyle on the tape, and Boyle buried a shot from the dot.
Antti Niemi locked down all 25 shots for his 4th shutout of the season, and the Sharks defense smothered the Capitals offense and forced them to attempt a third period comeback for the most part from the perimeter.
Of 12 third period Washington Capitals shots on goal, only 2 came from inside the faceoff circles. Sharks forwards blocked 5 third period shots in front of Antti Niemi, and the defense blocked 3. Shortly before Couture’s game winning goal at 11:55, the Heatley-Thornton-Setoguchi line twice got the puck deep into the Capitals zone. Instead of the quick up pass to start the Capitals transition, Alexander Ovechkin tried a 1-on-3 rush before turning the puck over to a Thornton stick check. After a Sharks scoring chance, Jason Chimera then unsuccessfully tried a 1-on-4 break up ice.
During the Sharks 9-game point streak, they have not been mistake free. After the ASG break, the Sharks had a shaky start against Phoenix, a firesale finish against Anaheim, and a critical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in a 1-goal game against Boston. Before the break there were too many men on the ice penalties against Los Angeles and Minnesota, and late delay of game and roughing penalties in the third period and overtime against Vancouver. Late in the third period on Tuesday, Nicklas Backstrom drew a hooking penalty on Niclas Wallin. Backstrom trapped Wallin’s stick between his right arm, and protested enough to draw a call.
The Sharks were able to overcome that mistake as they had the others, as a team. They have become more defensively responsible in their own zone, sticking to fundamentals and high percentage plays. At this point in the season, San Jose has completely bought in to head coach Todd McLellan’s message. “I thought we threw a lot of pucks to the net tonight, we made them play in their end probably a bit longer than they wanted to. Eventually it went our way,” McLellan said. Tied 0-0 after the second intermission, McLellan told the CSNCA broadcast that his bench needed to stick to the 60 minute gameplan instead of trying to press for a lead in the final 20 minutes. One game earlier, it was assistant coach Jay Woodcroft stressing a 60 minute message.
“20 players dressed, 20 players contributed,” McLellan said after the game. “When I talk (about a gameplan), it is probably an extention of the Boston game. It has been 120 minute gameplan, (not just 60 minutes)”.
While the Sharks started with set lines, they were mixed and matched somewhat as Setoguchi joined Thornton and Heatley, and Marleau joined Pavelski and Clowe later in the game. Since returning from the flu, Logan Couture has skated with the newly acquired Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood, and all three have clicked.
“When we were going through that losing streak, we were getting a little selfish, not playing a team game. The structure the coaching staff put in, over the past 10 games, we have started to play that way,” Couture said of the team’s recent turnaround.
The Sharks outshot the Capitals 27-13 after two periods, but both Michal Neuvirth and Antti Niemi came up big in goal. Neuvirth, coming off a 22 save shutout over Pittsburgh on Superbowl Sunday, was forced to stone Eager with a glove save in the first. #30 for Washington outwaited Thornton in the second, then extended his pad far to his left to make a pair of desperation saves. Antti Niemi, coming off a 26 save shutout against Boston, twice had to bail out defenseman Jason Demers. Demers turned the puck over to Brooks Laich and David Steckle, creating a pair of breakaway scoring chances in the first and second.
While the Sharks and Capitals can be compared at a distance, up close there has been no comparison. The Capitals have not had a winning regular season series matchup against San Jose since the Sharks were an expansion team in 91-92 and 92-93. San Jose upped their all-time regular season record against the Capitals to 18-9-1, with a 5-1 record since the lockout. Playoff success between the two franchises is comparible. In 36 seasons, the Capitals have reached the playoffs 58.3% of the time, with a Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final appearance. In 19 seasons, the Sharks have reached the playoffs 68.4% of the time, with a pair of Conference Final appearances in the last 6 seasons.
While former MVP’s Joe Thornton and Alexander Ovechkin each have enough individual hardware to fill a store that sells trophy cases, there has been a distinct change in each player’s performance this season. Thornton’s career points per game average of 1.017 over 12 seasons is down to only .901 points per game this year. He is on pace for 23 goals and 76 points, what would be his lowest point totals in 6 seasons. That belies the fact that he has focused extensively on becoming a more complete 3-zone player, something geared for the postseason.
Alexander Ovechkin recently made it clear to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen that his focus is also on the playoffs. “Of course I want to be on top (of the NHL in scoring), and of course I want to do my best, but the most important thing is to be in the playoffs and do what Chicago did when they won the Stanley Cup,” Ovechkin told Rosen. Ovechkin averaged 1.348 points per game over his first 5 seasons, reaching the 100-point plateau four times. This year Ovechkin is on pace for 33 goals and 91 points, what would be his lowest offensive output in his 6 year NHL career.
The Sharks continued their 9-game point streak (8-0-1) with the win over Washington. San Jose has also killed off 7 straight penalties over the last 7 periods. With a pair of shutouts, starting goaltender Antti Niemi has moved into the top 20 in wins (t-20th), save percentage (.915, t-16th), and goals against average (2.58, t-19th). With a rocky start, and a GAA of 3 or more in 6 of his first 9 starts, Niemi has allowed 2 or fewer goals in 8 of 14 appearances in 2011. Backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki returned to the lineup after missing 6 games with an undisclosed injury. Defenseman Derek Joslin was scratched for San Jose. Defenseman Mike Green (concussion-like symptoms) and DJ King were scratched for Washington.
[Update] Capitals vs. Sharks: Washington falls flat against visiting San Jose and is shut out for eighth time for the Washington Post.
“We’ve got to be mentally stronger than that,” Scott Hannan said. “They’re a big strong team. When they get the puck in deep and cycle it, they seem to drag out plays a lot in the offensive zone. That’s where we’ve got to be better. If we were a little quicker on the puck and able to break the puck out, you’ll get your chances against them – but you’ve got to work.”
[Update2] Wednesday Caps Clips: Shark Sandwiched – Japers Rink.
[Update3] Columbus preview: A new injury for Niittymaki gives Hutton another game as an NHL back-up – David Pollak’s Working the Corners blog.