The Sharks are the only team in the NHL with five p[layers who have already reached the 20-goal plateau, and that list doesn't include two of the team's top offensive performers in leading scorer Brent Burns (63 points) and Erik Karlsson (40 assists in 47 games).
Thursday night's game against the Sharks is the second stop in a season-long six-game road trip that started inauspiciously in Columbus on Tuesday night. The Caps suffered a 3-0 shutout setback at the hands of the Blue Jackets, turning in a meek overall performance while playing their second game in as many nights.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | February 14
Although the Capitals are a respectable 4-2-1 since the All-Star break, they realize to a man that they're not playing to their collective capabilities, and that they've not been able to find much in the way of consistency of late. The loss in Columbus marked the third time in their last 11 games that the Caps found themselves saddled with a shutout loss.
"We need consistency through a 60-minute game," said Caps goalie Braden Holtby in the wake of that loss in Columbus. "Structurally and mentally, we are good enough that it doesn't always take that for us to win. But we know we can get there if we're willing to be and the team is willing to be.
"Games like [Tuesday's], we looked like we just wanted an easy game, an easy skilled game. And teams like Columbus, they never let you do that. That's why they're good; they're hard to play against. It's a lesson learned. Against these teams, you've got to be prepared to get greasy at times. We've done it in the past, so it's just a matter of getting back to it."
Last month in Washington, the Caps let a two-goal lead slip away in the third period against the Sharks, suffering a 7-6 overtime loss to San Jose on Jan. 22. The Caps know they can't afford to trade chances with the high octane San Jose attack as they did that night.
"We've got to make sure that we establish our gap early against this team," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "They are so dangerous on the rush - as we saw in our last game against them - that if we want to give up odd-man rushes and go chance-for-chance against this team, then we're in for a long evening, especially in this building.
"It's important that our forwards do a good job of tracking from behind, allowing our defense to gap up. And then when we go back for the puck we've got some numbers going back for pucks, so we can break their pressure. So it will be an important part of the game tonight, our ability to break out pucks and establish a gap in online rushes against them."
Video: Todd Reirden Pregame | February 14
Turnaround Town - A little over 11 months ago, the Caps played here in San Jose, finishing what had been an extremely unsuccessful California trip to that point. Braden Holtby was pulled early in the trip opener in Anaheim, a 4-0 loss on March 6. Two nights later, the Caps lost 2-1 to the Kings in L.A. They hobbled into San Jose needing a win badly in a Saturday afternoon game against the Sharks.
The Caps turned in one of their best defensive performances of the season in a 2-0 win, limiting the Sharks to 24 shots on net, and just three in the second period. Nicklas Backstrom scored late in the second to give the Caps a 1-0 lead, and Philipp Grubauer made it stand up the rest of the way. Lars Eller added an empty-netter as the Caps salvaged two points despite scoring only two goals in three games on the trip, empty-netter aside.
That victory started the Caps off on a season-ending 12-3-0 spree, and the rest, as they say, is history. But had the Caps not won that game in San Jose some 11 months ago, they may not have won the Stanley Cup last spring. Some media types expected him to be fired when the Caps got home from that trip, and some were calling for his ouster. We'll never know how the season and the spring would have turned out if it went down differently.
"It was going to be a pretty tough road trip if we went home losing to San Jose," recalls Caps right wing T.J. Oshie. "San Jose, it seems like they are always a pretty good team. And there were obviously questions about if we could get the job done, and it seemed like every time we went on a little skid, it felt like those questions would start coming back up.
"Looking back, one of the biggest games to me was losing to Colorado last year [on Nov. 16, 2017], and our game against Pittsburgh right at the end of the season [on April 1, 2018]. But you never know. If we go 0-3 on this West Coast swing here, you don't know what happens with personnel, you don't know what happens with the morale of the team."
Fortunately for all, the Caps finished off that rare win in San Jose - their first regulation win here wince Oct. 30, 1993 - and went 28-11 the rest of the way, including the playoffs. Now, they'll be looking to get back on track here once again after an ugly loss to Columbus in the trip opener on Tuesday.
"It's a five-man job against this team for sure," says Reirden. "Some teams, you can get away with not having the detail from all five of your players on the ice defensively. This is not one of them, especially with the active [defense], a special player like Burns who is back there and them adding [Marc-Edouard] Vlasic back in from last time as well, as a guy who can add to the offense.
"They're dangerous. Their [top] three center men are as dangerous as any in the league, so it's a difficult test. We know that they had a few days between games here and they've been waiting for us, ready to go. So it's important that as a five-man unit we commit to playing defense, and that starts with how we act when we have the puck. So we've got to not give them any free offense, we cannot go chance-for-chance against this team, and that's something that we have done a better job of up until the Columbus game. Our odd-man rush numbers against since returning from the break were down quite a bit, and they rose up last game against Columbus and the result speaks for itself.
"That's an important one for us tonight. We believe in our skill level and our system enough to generate chances on our own. We don't need to force them. The more we can be smart about limiting those odd-man rushes gives us a chance to have success and it's something we did last time in this building."
Video: Rinkside Update | Matt Niskanen
Jumbo Achievement - Sharks center Joe Thornton piled up some milestones and achievements at the end of San Jose's recently completed road trip. On Monday night in Vancouver, Thornton skated in his 1,541st career NHL game, moving past Johnny Bucyk and Shane Doan and into 15th place on the league's all-time ledger.
Once the game started, Thornton kept the milestones coming. Thornton picked up his 1,050th assist to slide ahead of Gordie Howe and into ninth place on the NHL"s all-time assists list. That helper also moved Thornton into a tie with Teemu Selanne for 15th place on the league's all-time scoring list.
Thornton is the leading scorer among all active players in the NHL, leading Caps captain Alex Ovechkin - who ranks second among all active players in scoring - by 271 points.
In The Nets - Holtby will be back in goal for Washington on Thursday. Holtby was solid in Tuesday's trip-opening loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus, stopping 29 of 31 shots in a 3-0 loss. It marked the third time in his last nine starts that Holtby was on the wrong end of a shutout loss in a game in which he played well. He posted a .947 save pct. in those three starts, stopping 90 of 95 shots.
Holtby will be taking his third crack at earning his 20th win of the season on Thursday. Lifetime against the Sharks, he is 2-4-1 with a 4.18 GAA and an .868 save pct.
We are expecting to see Martin Jones in net for the Sharks on Thursday. Jones has won each of his four starts this month and has won five straight overall. He is 4-0-0 with a 1.95 GAA and a .936 save pct. in winning four straight starts at the outset of February.
Lifetime against the Capitals, Jones is 5-2-0 with a couple of shutouts, a 2.15 GAA and a .925 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Sharks to look when they meet on Thursday night at SAP Center for the second of their two meetings this season:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
23-Jaskin, 18-Stephenson, 25-Smith-Pelly
28-Meier, 39-Couture, 8-Pavelski
9-Kane, 48-Hertl, 27-Donskoi
20-Sorensen, 19-Thornton, 62-Labanc
53-Radil, 23-Goodrow, 68-M. Karlsson
65-E. Karlsson (lower body)