Sharks hope to avoid emotional letdown vs. Caps

Sharks hope to avoid emotional letdown vs. Caps
March 22, 2014, 12:30 pm
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The Sharks re-claimed first place in the Pacific on Brent Burns' game-winning goal against the Ducks. (USATSI)

Programming note: Capitals-Sharks coverage starts tonight at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live, only on Comcast SportsNet California

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks’ win over Anaheim on Thursday was as emotional a victory as the club has had all season. Several players said the battle for first place in the Pacific Division was the biggest game of the season, and the way they won – scoring two third period goals to turn a deficit into a lead – only added to the sense of triumph afterwards.

Duplicating that passion against the Capitals could be difficult, as Washington isn’t exactly a heated rival. But, it will probably be necessary, as the Caps are fighting for a playoff spot and are 3-0-1 in their last four games.

[RELATED: Sharks proud of playoff streak, but want more]

“If you lose tonight, Thursday’s game means nothing,” Joe Thornton said. “We realize how big these points are, and we realize how big a game tonight is for those guys over there.”

Todd McLellan said: “Let's face it, if we don't perform well tonight and don't live up to our end of the bargain, whatever we did two days ago doesn't matter anymore. We've already started this homestand with a bit of a letdown against Florida (a 3-2 loss on Tuesday) where we didn't play well enough for most of the game to give ourselves a chance to win. Now, Washington, on the other hand, they'll be hungry.”

[RELATED: Burns a 'beast' as Sharks skate past Ducks]

San Jose will have to continue to do something it’s done well all season, and stay out of the penalty box. The Sharks have been shorthanded just 187 times, a league low.

Washington’s power play enters ranked second in the league, but lately it’s been scorching hot. The Capitals are 14-for-38 over the last 12 games (36.8 percent), and have at least one power play goal in five of the last seven games. Alex Ovechkin leads the league with 20 power play goals, and Nicklas Backstrom’s 39 power play points is also tops in the NHL.

The Sharks penalty kill allowed a power play goal to Anaheim on Thursday, ending a streak of 15 straight kills over the previous six games.

“Their power play alone can win them games,” McLellan said. “They move the puck so well, they’ve got trigger men all over the place on that power play, and if you spend a lot of time in the penalty box, no matter how good your penalty kill is, they’ll eventually get one by you. That’s a huge, huge factor for us.”

Thornton said: “They’re deadly. Just stay disciplined and stay out of the box is going to be one of the keys tonight.”

Washington has not won a game in San Jose since Oct. 30, 1993, going 0-11-1 over that span. Overall, the Caps have lost 18 of their last 19 to the Sharks, including a 2-1 San Jose win in a shootout at Verizon Center on Jan. 14.

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Antti Niemi will oppose Jaroslav Halak in net. Halak, who went from the Blues to the Sabres to Washington this season, will be making his eighth straight start.

In seven games with Washington, Halak is 4-2-1 with an impressive 2.13 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

Niemi leads the league with 35 wins, tying his career high, and is 4-0-1 with a 1.75 GAA and .938 SP career vs. Washington.