Playing their first home game in over two weeks, the San Jose Sharks were in danger of falling victim to a “trap” game on Thursday night. For whatever reason, the Sharks have been known to stumble during the first game back after an extended road trip. Over the years, it is only too common to hear Sharks fans remarking “well, it’s the first game back after an extended trip, we’ll see how they do.”
This time around, the Sharks were focused from the opening puck drop. On the opening shift, defenseman Douglas Murray got physical with Washington star Alexander Ovechkin. While the Russian appeared to initiate the extra physical play with his Swedish opponent, the up-tempo pace probably helped the Sharks more than it did the Capitals.
Washington had played the previous night, winning a 7-6 barn burner over the Anaheim Ducks and the Sharks–as alluded to earlier–were playing their first home game since Feb. 1. The Sharks had just one day off from the final game of that trip before Thursday’s contest and one could have foreseen a situation where the Capitals would lure San Jose asleep.
However, with Ovechkin and Murray’s one-on-one showdown taking center stage early on, that wouldn’t be the case. Both teams came out skating and hitting in the first period and both goaltenders had to be on their toes. Antti Niemi was brilliant again for the Sharks, stopping 23 of 25 shots on the evening, including several of the “bail out” variety in the first period.
Despite moving their feet offensively and showing a fair amount of jump, San Jose had problems early on getting pucks out of their own zone and Niemi had to be on his game early on.
As the opening frame moved forward, the Murray and Ovechkin matchup would again come into play as the San Jose defenseman drew a penalty on Ovechkin–behind the Capitals net. The not necessarily fairly labeled “stay at home” defenseman in Murray had carried the puck into the zone himself before taking a rough “interference” penalty that could just have easily been called charging or roughing.
Despite finishing the previous road trip 5-2, the Sharks’ power-play had been struggling of late and with Ovechkin in the box, the struggling power-play would once again come up empty.
Fortunately for the Sharks, they would still be able to get on the board first–on the Capitals power-play–late in the opening stanza. Just nine seconds after Ben Eager was called for tripping Ovechkin, the Capitals would fumble the puck after their face-off win in the Sharks zone. Patrick Marleau then stole the puck away and flew down the left wing before passing across to Joe Pavelski just inside the Washington blue-line. “The Big Pavelski” proceeded to rip a shot from just inside the top of the right circle and the wrister beat Michal Neuvirth on the glove-side, top corner.
The lead would be short lived however as Ovechkin got that goal right back, scoring an equalizer just a mere 22 seconds after Pavelski’s short-handed goal had opened the scoring. After receiving a pass from rookie defenseman John Carlson, Ovechkin quickly skated into a nice shooting position right in the middle of the offensive zone and uncorked a wicked wrister that beat Niemi to the far-side.
Both teams would be held scoreless in the second but what was noticeable on the Sharks’ end was that they were playing without Marc-Edouard Vlasic who had suffered an injury early in that first period. Vlasic, San Jose’s fifth year defenseman, usually plays top-four minutes but played just two shifts for a total of 1:03 in ice time in the first period. ”Pickles” did not return and the onus would be put on Dan Boyle and surprisingly Jason Demers to eat up the bulk of the ice time.
Now it is no surprise that Boyle, San Jose’s No. 1 defenseman would pick up extra minutes. Not only does he lead all NHL players in average ice time (26:49), but he is by far their most effective offensive threat on the blue-line. Demers, on the other hand, is often on San Jose’s “third” defense pairing and therefore often considered still to be a fifth or sixth defenseman on the depth chart.
In just his second year in the league, Demers averages 19:17 in ice which is less than that of Vlasic (20:42) and Murray (19:53). So when Boyle finishes the night with nearly 30 full minutes of ice time (29:54 to be exact), nobody blinks an eye. However, when Demers finishes with 28:12 in ice time, that is bound to turn some heads.
Murray finished at 23:50, nearly four minutes above average, but both Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins only played about two minutes more of their average. Meanwhile Demers played almost nine minutes above his average?
The Sharks only had two power-play opportunities and Demers’ rarely sees time on the No. 1 unit anyway, so it was simply a matter of allocating the most of Vlasic’s minutes to Demers, who didn’t seem any worse for the wear. Perhaps as the season moves along, we will see more of Demers taking the load off Boyle in order to keep their most valuable asset fresh for the post-season. If Thursday night is any indication, Demers seems up to the task.
Meanwhile, the Sharks’ offense would get just enough goals past Neuvirth to reward their defenseman for the extra effort they had to put in with Vlasic’s absence.
Ryane Clowe banged home a juicy rebound on his backhand about five minutes into the third and then Dany Heatley would get credit for a power-play goal midway through the final frame.
The power-play, which had been struggling so mightily, came through at an ideal time as the fourth line of Eager, Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers had drawn the penalty which put the Sharks on the man advantage.
San Jose only needed 22 seconds before Boyle’s wrist shot from the center of the blue-line was tipped by not one, not two but all three Sharks forwards. Pavelski got the original deflection before Heatley and Joe Thornton got their sticks on it. Heatley would get the goal, being the last to touch the puck for his 20th of the year and his first tally in seven games.
By finally striking on the power-play (were on a 0-12 skid prior to the goal) and cashing in the hard work of the their “grind” line, the Sharks provided a two-goal cushion to which they would need in order to come out with the win.
With just under two minutes remaining, Nicklas Backstrom would fire a quick wrister through a screen and past Niemi to pull Washington back within a goal. The Sharks, who have had more than their fair share of third period collapses this season could have let this one slip away but thanks in large part to late takeaway by Thornton, the Capitals wouldn’t get much in the way of scoring chances in the final 1:55.
Niemi stopped a hard wrist shot from Ovechkin off the rush, but outside of that, the Sharks did an excellent job keeping the high powered Capitals offense on the perimeter after Backstrom’s goal.