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San Jose Sharks come up short against Washington Capitals

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A couple bad bounces kept the San Jose Sharks from earning a victory over the Washington Capitals Sat., March 22. Events earlier in the day also meant that even the one point earned was not enough to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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San Jose gave a good effort, but Washington's pictured stars took advantage of situations to tip the balance. When Stanley Cup seeding is at stake, a well-played loss only means something if it earns at least one point.

Despite what the broadcast continued saying, the Sharks no longer could clinch a playoff spot once the Dallas Stars (the best team not currently qualifying for a wild card berth in the Western Conference) beat the Ottawa Senators. Even two points would have left the Phoenix Coyotes in reach of a tie for third in the Pacific Division—an automatic postseason bid—and they would only have had to win seven of those 11 games in regulation or overtime to have a chance to win the tiebreak.

With the shootout loss, both Phoenix and Dallas can finish a point ahead of San Jose, and either can win the first tiebreak. That means the magic number is down to two—any combination of two points earned or two lost be either competitor and a berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs is earned.

Of course, the Sharks have bigger goals to reach. They remain half a game up for first place in the Pacific Division but two games behind the current Western Conference-leading St. Louis Blues and NHL-leading Boston Bruins. With 10 games to go, those teams are in danger of being out of reach, but being caught by the Anaheim Ducks remains a threat.

The Capitals remain a game behind the Detroit Red Wings and half a game ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the wild card spots in the Eastern Conference. Both competitors are virtually guaranteed to own the tiebreak.

The guests got on board first when a Justin Braun clear went off a defender past Antti Niemi, giving Eric Fehr a goal. Patrick Marleau put home a rebound of a Logan Couture shot that came after an attempted wrap-around by Matt Nieto in the final seconds of the first period to tie it up.

San Jose turned it up in the second period but could not get a shot past surprise starter Braden Holtby. (The post-game broadcast reported that Jaroslav Halak is injured, though he did dress as the backup.) It seemed James Sheppard's unassisted breakaway goal—a much-better effort than Thursday's, with a nifty backhand through the five-hole—just over five minutes into the third might be enough to beat Washington for the 14th straight time at home.

Just after the second television timeout, things changed. Tom Wilson carried the puck from his defensive zone into the attack zone and then hit Scott Hannan to recover it deep. He sent it behind the net to old Pacific Division-rival Dustin Penner, whose feed to the high slot gave him just his second point in 10 games with the Capitals.

Niemi seemed to make the save, but the curse of the NHL first (no team gives up as many first-ever goals since joining the league) bites the Sharks in the tail again when Chris Brown's only official shot in his 14th career game bounced off a defender over the goalie's shoulder and into the net.

Only Marleau was able to score for San Jose in the shootout, while Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom beat Niemi for Washington to secure the two points. Holtby withstood four shots and six attempts in a late regulation power play and gave Alex Ovechkin a chance to win the game out of the box in the final eight seconds, but his shot was turned aside along with John Carlson's last-second, long-range slap-shot attempt.

Like the shootout, the overtime belonged to the Capitals. In the final three minutes, they won half the faceoffs, had the only takeaway and all six shot attempts (five on net, one blocked). Up until then, the Sharks held edges of 43-18 in the circle, 13-16 in giveaways, 61-54 in attempts and 36-20 in shots thanks to a 21-15 edge in blocks.

Considering the extra time with the puck and on attack, even deficits of 6-7 in takeaways and 21-24 in hits amount to having an edge in that area of the game. Nevertheless, the loss means San Jose finishes the 2013-14 NHL season 21-7-4 against the Eastern Conference and is now 26-5-5 at home.

The Sharks resume their quest to clinch a Stanley Cup-playoff berth in Alberta Monday. A win against either the Calgary Flames or Edmonton Oilers will secure it with no worse than a third-place finish in the Pacific Division and should keep the Ducks at bay for the top spot and home-ice advantage until the Western Conference finals.

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