January 7 vs. San Jose Sharks at HP Pavillion
Time: 10:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m., Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 5 p.m., all on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (21-15-2)
San Jose Sharks (22-11-4)
Having won six of their last seven games on home ice and four straight overall, the Capitals embark on a two-game Western road trip. First stop is San Jose, where the Caps will take on the red-hot San Jose Sharks. For Washington, the Shark Tank has been a house of horrors over the years. The Caps’ last win in San Jose came on Oct. 20, 1993, a 4-2 triumph that came in the Sharks’ third season of existence.
Washington is 0-10-1 in its last 11 visits to San Jose. The team’s road drought against the Sharks is its longest in any of the league’s 29 road cities. The Caps have been outscored by a combined 41-21 during the life of that winless streak on the road against the Sharks.
“That looks good in print,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble of the Caps’ long stretch of futility in San Jose. “But for the guys who have been here – we have new faces this year, new faces last year – those guys don’t really care.
“When you go [to San Jose] once every other year, how long are you going to drag it out for? The players here, I think we’ve been there one time as a group. They’re a strong team at home, there’s no doubting that. I’m sure they catch teams from the east in a little bit of vacation mode and that’s not what we’re going to do, and it’s not what our trip out here is about.
The Caps have scored the game’s first goal only twice in those 11 games, and Washington has not owned a lead of any kind in San Jose in its last seven visits here, since it scored the game’s first goal in a 2-1 road loss to the Sharks on Dec. 12, 1998.
“We’ll make sure we play well right out of the gate,” says Knuble. “We’ve got to match [them] otherwise they’ll get on you early. They play with confidence and they come out fast there. If you’re wading into games and seeing how it goes and trying to turn it up at the 10-minute mark, many times they’ll be up two on you at that point.
“It comes down to a quick start. I think we were very comfortable coming into the last game and coming into the third [period] with the lead. When we get the lead, we’re very comfortable playing like that. At the same time, if we’re down one or two, I feel like we can pick up the aggressiveness level, play a little more risky and try and get a goal; it paid off for us in Columbus [on Dec. 31].
“And by ‘risky,’ I mean just a little bit, maybe a subtle pinch here or there, a little more to push the offense a little bit more. Instead of kind of letting it happen, you can force the issue a little bit when you’re down.
“It’s going to be our typical games, tight games. We’ll be one ahead or one behind probably, going into the third. I think we’ll feel very good about hanging onto [a lead] when we get it. Quick starts are the key I think for us. You don’t want to wade into the game; you want to come out right away.”
The Capitals have owned the lead for 207:49 of the last 240 minutes they’ve played on home ice, and they have won all four games during that span. In the seven road games they’ve played since Dale Hunter took over as the team’s head coach on Nov. 28, the Capitals have led for just 30:39 of 425 minutes. That’s not a lot, but it has translated into a respectable 3-3-1 record in those games.
“That’s not good,” says Hunter. “We’ve got to get a good start tomorrow. In here, they come out hard and they get the fans behind them. So we’re going to have to come out and be ready for it and play well in the first period. You can win or lose the game by that.”
San Jose will be playing its third game in four nights; it downed the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday and bested the Blue Jackets on home ice on Thursday. The Sharks have earned at least a point in 10 of their last 11 games (7-1-3) to take over the top spot in the NHL’s Pacific Division standings.
The Sharks are a strong home team; they’ve suffered nine or fewer regulation losses on home ice in four of the last seven seasons and are 9-4-2 at the Shark Tank this season.
One of the top even-strength teams in the league, San Jose owns a 1.49 ratio of goals for to goals against at even-strength, the third best mark in the league. The Sharks are also one of the league’s best clubs in the face-off circle, owning a 53.6% success rate on the dot in 2011-12, the second best mark in the NHL.
Goaltender Antti Niemi is having a strong season for the Sharks. He is 17-7-4 with a 2.29 GAA and a .918 save pct. In his last eight starts, Niemi is 6-1-1 with a 2.19 GAA and a .916 save pct.
Penalty killing has not been a San Jose strong suit this season; the Sharks are 28th in the circuit with a kill rate of 76.5%. San Jose has helped make up for that shortcoming by being the league’s most disciplined team. The Sharks have been shorthanded just 115 times in their 37 games this season, the fewest in the NHL.