The San Jose Sharks have the first game of a three-game road trip Tuesday, January 14. They will need the pictured match-up edge over the Washington Capitals on the ice and behind the bench to overcome recent road woes: 11 games with one real win, two in a shootout and eight regulation losses.
The Sharks also need to play with an edge. Some of their five missing forwards were victims of opponents taking liberties, and every road loss in this stretch involved defensive collapses in the second or third period where they seemed to lose their mental edge.
Fortunately for them, Washington coach Adam Oates may have provided extra motivation when he was critical of San Jose rookie Tomas Hertl's flamboyant goal after getting his first NHL hat trick. More importantly, the hosts are not a strong team this season.
The Capitals are in position to get home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They are also five games behind the Sharks—who have the fifth-best record (point percentage) in the Western Conference—and the same record as the non-qualifying Phoenix Coyotes.
The difference between the Pacific Division and the Metropolitan Division is literally fifth to second place. San Jose has to show that difference in quality of play on the ice, especially with more urgency thanks to Washington's bigger cushions for home-ice advantage and even just making the Stanley Cup playoffs at all.
The Sharks are 9-4-2 against the Eastern Conference and are 12-10-3 on the road for the season. Before a recent three-game points streak (2-0-1), the Capitals were just 1-3-3. For the season, they are 14-8-3 at home and 7-8-1 against the Western Conference.
Along with the match-ups detailed in the photo list, San Jose should at least get a point in this game—prediction: 3-2, Sharks.
The Washington Capitals are known for elite forwards, but have lost a lot of that advantage. However, with the injury to Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, the San Jose Sharks have also lost their edge there.
Further injuries have depleted the checking lines: San Jose is filling its fourth line with career reserves and even players who have yet to develop at the AHL level, while Washington's checking lines are underrated. The edge in this unit goes to the team that has the better depth.
The Washington Capitals have skilled blue-liners like Mike Green and John Carlson and they have plenty of third-pair players they cannot even dress each night. However, the San Jose Sharks have that skill and depth, while possessing better players between them.
In other words, Justin Braun and Brad Stuart are the difference on the blue line for the Sharks.
The Washington Capitals actually have a glut of goalie talent. All three goalies they have put in net have performed well for the most part despite the team's mediocre record. However, none of them are as good as Antti Niemi.
True, Niemi struggled in November and December, but appears to have recaptured his Vezina-finalist and Stanley Cup-champion form in the last three games. Even should Alex Stalock start, he has been as impressive as Washington's goalies so far this season.
The Washington Capitals are adjusting to a new coaching staff headed by someone without NHL experience. The San Jose Sharks have the best goalie coach in the world, a former Stanley Cup champion head coach as an assistant and a Stanley Cup champion assistant coach as the head coach.
Two other leading NHL assistants round out the best staff in the world for San Jose. That should be enough to provide a significant edge over some great but less-experienced hockey minds on the other bench.