March 9 vs. San Jose Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose
Time: 10:30 p.m.
Radio: 104.7 FM, 1500 AM and Capitals Radio 24/7
Washington Capitals 44-14-7
San Jose Sharks 39-19-7
Washington opens up a three-game California road trip on Thursday night in San Jose against the Sharks. The game pits two of the league's four divisional leaders against one another, and also features two of the league's three stingiest teams.
Video: Jakub Vrana on his developing game
The Capitals have been rather ordinary on the road of late, winning four of their last nine (4-4-1) away from Verizon Center, where their franchise record 15-game home winning streak came to a halt on Monday with a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars.
In the loss to the Stars, the Caps got out of the gates slowly and faced the rare predicament of a three-goal deficit early in a home game. Washington rallied with a goal late in the second and another just past the midpoint of the third, but the comeback fell short and Dallas sealed the deal with a late empty-netter.
Just under a month ago, the Caps headed into their bye week in the midst of an extended roll. Washington owned a six-game winning streak after downing the Anaheim Ducks in the District on Feb. 11, and the Caps were 19-2-1 in their previous 22 games at that point.
Keeping up a pace that torrid is nearly impossible, and the Caps have indeed been more middling since coming back from their break. They're 5-3-1 in nine games since returning, and they still hold a five-point lead over the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets in the Metropolitan Division standings.
But if there's one area in particular that has been vexing the Caps over the last month, it's probably their starts in games. Washington owns the league's best first-period goal differential at plus-38 (67-29), but the Caps haven't been nearly as dominant in the early portion of those last nine contests.
Slow starts were a bit of a problem for the Capitals last season, but up to the bye week Washington routinely came out of the gates strong in 2016-17.
Video: Coach Trotz before heading to San Jose
"Yeah, we had it pat," says Trotz, of his team's starts. "That [Dallas game] was more like last year [when] our starts weren't very good. We'd battle back in the second and dominate the second, and then sort of continue on to the third. I can't think of too many good starts since the bye week. We've got to get off to better starts so we can put the other team on their heels a little bit."
Washington has scored first in 45 of its 65 games this season, and getting the early jump on the opposition has frequently forced those teams to take chances in order to keep up. Taking chances can lead to mistakes, and those mistakes have often resulted in the Capitals opening up a multi-goal lead over their foes. Washington has won 20 games by a margin of three or more goals this season, the most in the NHL.
"It's got to come from the room; let's get going," says Trotz. "I think we have a lot of confidence, but maybe sometimes we have a little bit too much confidence going out against teams. We've got to get a little more urgency in our game."
Video: Oshie talks about this season's offensive improvement
The Caps' Monday loss to Dallas was their sixth straight setback to the Stars on home ice; the last time Washington prevailed over the Stars in D.C. was Nov. 30, 2006. The Caps have struggled mightily against the Stars since that team moved from Minnesota to Texas for the 1993-94 season, and they're now 7-22-3 against the Stars since then. Only three of Washington's seven wins over the Stars during that span have come in regulation.
Now, the Caps head west to face another longtime nemesis in the Sharks. Earlier this season, San Jose whitewashed the Capitals by a 3-0 count at Verizon Center on Nov. 8. Including that game, Washington is 11-23-1-3 against the Sharks since San Jose joined the league as the NHL's 22nd franchise in 1991-92.
Many of Washington's wins in the series came early in the Sharks' existence when they were a weak expansion team. The Capitals started off by winning seven of their first 10 games against the Sharks, but they've gone 4-20-1-3 in their last 28 meetings with San Jose, since the start of the 1997-98 season.
The Caps went more than two decades without tasting victory in Northern California. After taking a 4-2 win from the Sharks in San Jose on Oct. 30, 1993, Washington went 0-11-1 in its next dozen road games against the Sharks before finally scratching out a 3-2 shootout win in San Jose on March 22, 2014. The Caps have won once more in San Jose since then, taking a 5-4 overtime victory on Feb. 11, 2015, but that victory way back in 1993 stands as the Capitals most recent regulation win in San Jose.
A season after making the first Stanley Cup final appearance in franchise history, the Sharks are once again sitting atop the Pacific Division standings as they aim for their first division title since 2010-11. The Sharks came out of the Western Conference as the sixth seed last spring, bowing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game Cup final series.
Going into Wednesday's slate of NHL activity, the Sharks own a seven-point lead over second-place Edmonton in the Pacific Division, the widest lead of any of the league's four division leaders. San Jose has two games remaining with the Oilers this season, but the Sharks have also earned a point in 19 of their last 22 games (14-3-5), so the likelihood of them holding on to the top spot is strong.
San Jose is in the middle of the pack in goals scored this season, but the Sharks are the league's third stingiest team in terms of goals against per game. San Jose has permitted an average of 2.32 goals per game, and it trails only Washington (2.06) and Columbus (2.28) in that department. The Sharks are on pace to permit 190 goals against this season, which would be the team's best mark since it surrendered a franchise record low of 183 goals against in 2003-04.
The Sharks have won four of their last five games, surrendering a total of just eight goals in those five games. San Jose's penalty kill has been nicked for a power-play goal in each of the team's last four games, so the Sharks have permitted only four even-strength tallies in those last five contests.