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DeBoer should still tweak while Sharks seek best forward lines

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DeBoer should still tweak while Sharks seek best forward lines

For the first time since the Sharks acquired Evander Kane at the trade deadline, head coach Peter DeBoer broke up his new-look top line during Saturday's loss to the Washington Capitals. Kane, captain Joe Pavelski, and winger Joonas Donskoi only played together for 4:58 in five-on-five situations, according to Natural Stat Trick, after playing 12:36 together in the first four games after the trade. 

DeBoer did so largely out of necessity, as the top line and the rest of the regular combinations struggled. In those 4:58 together, Kane, Pavelski, and Donskoi were out-attempted 7-4, while the second line of Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Mikkel Boedker (14.29 percent corsi-for percentage) and third line of Tierney, Kevin Labanc, and Timo Meier (35.71 percent) also ceded the majority of puck possession.

Those results were largely surprising for the first two lines, albeit over a very small sample. Since Kane's arrival, he, Pavelski, and Donskoi have controlled 59.84 percent of the five-on-five shot attempts, and two-thirds of the unblocked attempts. 

Couture, Hertl, and Boedker haven't been as sterling, but have still largely played their opponents even in terms of shot attempts (49.46 percent corsi-for percentage), and edged them out in terms of unblocked attempts (54.24 percent fenwick-for percentage). It was more of the same for the third line, however, as they've controlled just 41.77 percent of the five-on-five shot attempts, and 48.33 percent of the unblocked attempts. 

Saturday forced DeBoer's hand, but you can see the dilemma he's faced with his forward group since the Kane trade. The first line's been great, the second line's been decent, the third line has largely struggled, all while the fourth line played its opponents pretty much evenly.

He can't ask for much more from the first and fourth lines, but the middle six leaves a bit to be desired. As a team, the Sharks have controlled just under half of the five-on-five shot attempts (49.9 percent) since the trade, and 54.39 percent of the unblocked attempts.

The latter mark is particularly strong (fifth-best since the trade deadline as of this writing), and the discrepancy is likely owed to the fact that the Sharks are sixth in blocked shots since the trade deadline (103). Still, the former constitutes a larger sample, and is underwhelming as the Sharks head into a critical stretch run. 

Rearranging the middle-six forwards with new second and third lines would be a solid first step, and it's a good sign for the Sharks that DeBoer showed a willingness to go even farther on Saturday. He's not been too attached to any of his lines this season, and he'll need to continue tweaking until he finds the right mix. 

Sharks shut out in Saturday matinee

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Sharks shut out in Saturday matinee

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE -- Philipp Grubauer made 24 saves for his fifth career shutout and Nicklas Backstrom scored late in the second period to help the Washington Capitals salvage the final game of their California swing with a 2-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.

Washington was outscored 7-1 in losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles to open the trip before a narrow win in San Jose moved the Capitals one point ahead of Pittsburgh for first place in the Metropolitan Division, pending the Penguins' game in Toronto.

Alex Ovechkin, two goals short of 600 for Washington, was held scoreless for the third straight game. Marc-Edouard Vlasicthwarted one chance for Ovechkin to get goal No. 599 with a strong back check and goalie Martin Jones robbed Ovechkin on a partial breakaway midway through the third period to keep San Jose's deficit at 1-0.

Lars Eller's empty-net goal sealed the win for the Capitals.

The Sharks were unable to get anything past Grubauer and fell to 3-2 on their six-game homestand. San Jose failed on two power-play chances, falling to 1 for 32 with the man advantage over the past 14 games.

Jones made 24 saves for the Sharks but couldn't stop Backstrom's one-timer late in the second period after Washington appeared to enter the zone offside.

Brett Connolly found Backstrom alone in the faceoff circle and he beat Jones high to the glove side for his 17th goal of the season. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer didn't challenge for offside, and the goal stood.

The Sharks controlled play for much of the first period but were unable to turn that into goals as Timo Meier hit the post during a power play on San Jose's best opportunity. Tomas Hertl also hit the post on the power play in the second period as San Jose failed to take advantage of two penalties by Tom Wilson.

The Capitals took over in the second, outshooting the Sharks 12-3. That heavy pressure finally paid off late in the period with Backstrom's goal.

NOTES: The Capitals had not won in regulation at San Jose since their first trip to the Shark Tank on Oct. 30, 1993, when they won 4-2. Washington had 13 losses, one tie, one overtime win and one shootout win since then.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host the Winnipeg Jets on Monday.

Sharks: Host the Detroit Red Wings on Monday.

Childhood Sharks fan Ovechkin can make history against San Jose

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Childhood Sharks fan Ovechkin can make history against San Jose

Nearly 6000 miles away in Moscow, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin grew up a San Jose Sharks fan in the early 1990s, all because a childhood teammate's attire caught his eye.

“Actually, it’s fun story,” Ovechkin told The Washington Post in 2016. “One of my teammates back then wear the hat with a shark, and we were like, ‘What is it?’ Because we don’t know the team. He said it’s the team over in San Jose, so I have a hat, I have a hoodie and like a jacket. Ulf Dahlen, I remember, my dad gave me a jersey of Ulf Dahlen. It was on my wall. That was kind of fun.”

The jersey's still sits on the wall in his family's country home, according to The Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan. Growing up in Russia, Ovechkin's experience watching the NHL was largely limited to store-bought highlight tapes. He idolized players like Sergei Fedorov and Mario Lemieux, but he told Graham Bensinger in a 2015 interview that he had a special affinity for a former Sharks captain.

"Of course, my favorite player was Owen Nolan, who played in San Jose," Ovechkin said. "He was physical, he can score goals, and he was a great leader."

That sure sounds the way Ovechkin, arguably the best power forward of the modern era and one of the best goal-scorers of all time, plays. The 32-year-old is in the midst of a renaissance season, hitting the 40-goal mark for the ninth time in his career, tied for the fourth-most all-time.

Ovechkin is nearing another major milestone, sitting just two goals shy of becoming the 20th player in league history to score 600 goals. With four more, he can pass Jari Kurri for 19th all-time. 

He'll have his latest shot at history in his 10th trip to San Jose Saturday afternoon, when his Capitals wrap up a three-game, California road trip against his favorite NHL team from childhood. 

Expecting him to pass Kurri in the matinee would be a stretch, but the former is certainly possible against the NHL team he grew up rooting for. He's been fairly prolific against the Sharks (eight goals in 17 games), and scored in his last game against San Jose on Dec. 4. 

But the Sharks have largely limited Ovechkin, as well as the Capitals, in his previous nine appearances at SAP Center. He's only scored two goals there, none in his last five trips, while San Jose's not lost to Washington at home in regulation since 1993.

The bad news for the Sharks, and the good news for Ovechkin's pursuit of history, is that he may be due. He's only scored on about six percent of his 33 shots at SAP Center, compared to a career average of 12.4 percent on 4825 shots. Ovechkin's also recorded multiple shots on goal in each of those games, and it's difficult to imagine him remaining out of the goal column at SAP Center.  

Whether he scores twice against the Sharks or not on Saturday, Ovechkin's surely going to reach the 600-goal mark this season. The milestone's special enough on its own, but there would be something fitting about Ovechkin reaching it against his boyhood NHL team, and in the building where his favorite player dazzled fans for parts of seven seasons. 

If he does score 599 and 600 in San Jose, Ovechkin should send the pucks to that childhood teammate.