WASHINGTON - Professional hockey players are naturally positive people. That's what retired Washington Capitals captain Dale Hunter used to say. And last night, the Capitals seemed to prove it.
They are in a down-to-the-wire battle for a playoff spot in the NHL postseason. They need wins, and on a night when they lose, they hope the Carolina Hurricanes, whom they're chasing for the Southeast Division title, loses, too.
Last night, the Capitals lost to the San Jose Sharks, 5-2, and Carolina won, stretching its division lead back to eight points. And the Caps, who were battling toe-to-toe with the Sharks for 30 minutes, might have hidden in the training room brooding. Instead, they seemed to take heart.
"We outplayed them in the first period," said Jaromir Jagr, who dominated much of the play. "We made one mistake, and they scored. And then, they got that 5-on-3 advantage, and ... once they got the two-, three-goal lead, with their confidence, we didn't have a chance any more. But we've got 21 games left, and it's not over till it's over."
The Capitals could see they had had a chance. Except that 10:08 into the second period, right wing Dainius Zubrus' stick sliced into San Jose Shark Mike Ricci's face for a four-minute major penalty for high sticking and Ken Klee was called for cross-checking with 1:40 left on the Zubrus penalty. And the tightly contested hockey game began to unravel.
Before that, the Caps had stood toe-to-toe with the Pacific Division leader. They had fallen behind 2-1 on a seeing-eye goal by Alexander Korolyuk.
"I don't think we respected Washington as much as we should have," said Owen Nolan, who scored on the two-man advantage for a 3-1 Sharks lead. "We knew it was going to be a tougher game, but we weren't ready to work in the first period. ... I think the [5-on-3] was a big turning point."
Two minutes after the double penalty ended, the Sharks scored again for a 4-1 margin.
Through the years, the Caps and Sharks have split their games, 8-8-1, and entering last night's game, both clubs were on hot streaks: Washington, riding the longest unbeaten streak of its season at 4-0-1. But San Jose came out with its seventh straight win, its season's best.
"We didn't expect to go undefeated to the end of the season," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "I thought we played very well. We outplayed them, but they outscored us. We have to find a way to eliminate their chances and finish ours."
San Jose 1 3 1 - 5
Washington 1 0 1 - 2
First period - 1, San Jose, Graves 11 (Harvey, Bradley), 5:09. 2, Washington, Jagr 20 (Oates), 7:01 (pp). Penalties - Gonchar, Was (ob.-hooking), 1:33; Hannan, SJ (boarding), 6:34; Bradley, SJ (tripping), 14:14; Rathje, SJ (interference), 19:10. Second period - 3, San Jose, Korolyuk 3 (Stuart, Marleau), 5:37. 4, San Jose, Nolan 15 (Damphousse, Suter), 13:02 (pp). 5, San Jose, Thornton 18 (Ricci, Sundstrum), 15:18. Penalties - Zubrus, Was, double minor (high-sticking), 10:08; Klee, Was (cross-checking), 12:28. Third period - 6, Washington, Gonchar 19 (Jagr, Oates), 18:45. 7, San Jose, Damphousse 15, 19:25 (en). Penalties - Washington bench, served by Pettinger (unsportsmanlike conduct), 11:22; Simon, Was, misconduct, 11:22; Hannan, SJ (tripping), 14:31. Shots on goal - San Jose 8-7-9-24. Washington 10-7-10-27. Power-play opportunities - San Jose 1 of 5; Washington 1 of 4. Goalies - San Jose, Nabokov 27-16-5 (27 shots-25 saves). Washington, Kolzig 20-24-6 (23-19). A - 16,301 (18,672).