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Sharks confident they can make second-half run to Stanley Cup Playoffs

Seven points out of spot, point to Blues last season as proof it can be done

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The San Jose Sharks left Capital One Arena upset about the point that got away in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on Sunday while also determined to focus Monday on the point they earned.

Seven points behind the Calgary Flames for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference, the Sharks know they need to move on quickly after letting a 4-2 lead slip away in the final minute of the third period against the Capitals.

"You have to," center Joe Thornton said. "We're behind the eight ball, so you've got to forget about it and now a big test against [the] St. Louis [Blues] on Tuesday."

That test against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Blues at Enterprise Center (8 p.m. ET; FS-MW, NBCSCA, NHL.TV) will complete a five-game road trip. Facing the Blues also will serve as a reminder that what the Sharks are trying to accomplish is not impossible.

Video: SJS@CBJ: Labanc finishes Thornton one-timer off rush

"We have talked about that," coach Bob Boughner said. "We talked about that a couple weeks ago. … That was pretty special what happened there."

The Blues were 15-18-4 and in last place in the NHL on Jan. 3 last season before making a run that ended with them lifting the Stanley Cup. The Sharks (19-21-4) are closer to a playoff spot than the Blues were before their surge (11 points out). And though they have played seven more games, there are similarities in their situations.

Those include an in-season coaching change. Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as Blues coach on Nov. 19, 2018, and St. Louis went 8-10-1 in its first 19 games following the change before finding its game.

The Sharks, who have much of the same roster that lost to the Blues in the Western Conference Final last season, are 4-5-2 since Boughner replaced Peter DeBoer as coach Dec. 11. But they have shown signs of improvement while going 3-1-1 in their past five games, even Sunday.

Video: SJS@PIT: Thornton sets up Burns for OT winner

Leading 3-2 after the second period, San Jose limited Washington to four shots on goal during the first 19 minutes of the third. Logan Couture's empty-net goal with 1:00 remaining made it 4-2 and had the Sharks on the verge of a three-game winning streak before it all unraveled.

Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie scored with goalie Braden Holtby on the bench for an extra attacker to tie the game, and Lars Eller finished a 2-on-1 at 2:01 of overtime to win it for the Capitals, who lead the NHL with 63 points.

"It sure feels like we've lost every single way you can possibly lose a game in sport this year -- blowouts, close games like this," said Couture, San Jose's captain. "So now that we've got this one done, hopefully we'll never have to do this again."

There were positives for the Sharks to build on, including forward Evander Kane's hat trick, which gave him four goals in the past two games after he had two in his previous 22. The power play scored twice to break out of a 2-for-26 slide in the previous 11 games. And they showed a dedication to their defensive system.

After Couture scored, San Jose was 60 seconds away from allowing two goals or fewer for the fifth straight game. It hadn't done that in more than two consecutive games previously this season.

With the Sharks 28th in the NHL in giving up 3.34 goals per game, that's an area they'll need to continue to improve. They'll also need better goaltending than they received Sunday from Martin Jones, who acknowledged, "I just need a save at the end there."

The emergence last season of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington as the Blues' No. 1 was a big factor in their turnaround. The Sharks will need Jones (13-15-2, 3.19 goals-against average, .890 save percentage in 31 games) or Aaron Dell (6-6-2, 2.99 GAA, .904 in 17 games) to step up similarly.

Video: NYR@SJS: Jones shuts the door on Zibanejad

Boughner believes San Jose is moving closer to the way it needs to play to climb back into contention.

"We are showing a little bit more maturity in our game, in our puck decisions, and making sure that we're keeping everything in front of us," he said. "So it's slowly coming. I think we're turning the corner, but there's some work to do."

The players say they believe too.

"It was tough to say when we were going through that tough stretch when we just weren't playing good hockey," Couture said. "It was tough to stand here and say, 'Yeah, yeah, I feel it, I feel it.' But now I truly do. The way we've played after Christmas, getting back to our type of game, being happy to win 3-2 games or 2-1 games, I feel like if we continue to play this way we'll find ourselves close to a spot at the end, if not in."

While in Washington, Boughner noted another example of a team that rebounded from a terrible start. Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals were 19-31 after their first 50 games and came back to win the 2019 World Series.

"That's been talked about as well," Boughner said. "There still is a lot of hockey to go, but we're not thinking where we're going to be in March. Right now it's about how we're going to end this road trip off."

A victory against the Blues would give the Sharks a 3-1-1 road trip and added confidence they can pull off their own second-half comeback.

"We know that we can catch up to all the other teams and we can fight for that playoff spot," forward Kevin Labanc said. "It's just a matter of buying in and make sure that we bring it for a full 60 minutes every night. I think everybody knows that and everybody in the locker room is prepared for that battle."

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