Niemi, Sharks blank Capitals

Niemi, Sharks blank Capitals
February 9, 2011, 2:30 am
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Tuesday, February 8, 2011 9:28 p.m., Updated at 10:45 p.m.

By Mark Zuckerman

Michal Neuvirth faced 34 shots during the first 51 minutes Tuesday night at Verizon Center, and he stopped every one of them, keeping the Washington Capitals in a scoreless tie with the San Jose Sharks and giving his lethargic teammates at least a chance to pull this one out.

The Caps, though, can only ask so much of their young goalie, who was already coming off a weekend shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins and now was nine minutes away from another. Eventually, the Sharks figured to squeeze something through, and sure enough they did it on their final two shots of the night.

With 8:05 remaining in the third period, rookie center Logan Couture slipped a shot from the left circle through Neuvirth's legs. Two minutes later, Dan Boyle one-timed a pass from Dany Heatley into the net.

Unfortunately for Neuvirth and the Capitals, those two late goals accounted for the entire night's tally, leaving the home team stewing over a frustrating 2-0 loss to San Jose.

"I felt pretty good the whole game," said Neuvirth, who until those two late goals had stopped 56 consecutive shots over a span of nearly 112 minutes. "I think they were coming pretty hard the whole game. They just deserved to win tonight, I think."

It's hard to fault the 22-year-old net-minder, who allowed two or fewer goals for the 17th time in 29 games. But on a night in which his teammates put forth little offensive charge, Neuvirth had to be perfect.

"He played great for 51 minutes," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But if you want to be a great goalie in this league, when the game is on the line, you've got to be the one to make sure you stop those. I think both of those goals were not of the variety that should have beat him."

Even had Neuvirth been perfect the entire game, the Capitals might still be playing, still searching for the one goal that eluded them all night.

They thought they had tallied one midway through the first period when Alex Semin (back on the ice after missing 12 games with a groin injury) fired a shot from the right circle that trickled through Antti Niemi's legs. Niemi didn't realize the puck had gotten through, and neither did the officiating crew. Everyone else in the building, though, clearly saw the puck sitting untouched in the crease until Niemi inadvertently kicked it into the net.

The crowd, and the Caps bench, erupted thinking the home team had just taken a 1-0 lead. Just one problem: The referee had already blown his whistle when he thought Niemi was sitting on the puck. Thus, the goal was disallowed.

"It was deflating," Boudreau said. "I mean, obviously it shouldn't have been blown. The referee came up and apologized. It doesn't do us a lot of good. ... You can't blame that one chance."

The Capitals could have overcome the bad call by continuing to attack the net. But they never could find an offensive groove and spent much of the night slogging their way through an uninspired performance.

Washington fired only four shots on goal in the second period, and over a 28-minute span during the second and third periods totaled only seven shots.

"There was not a lot of jump, for whatever reason, today," Boudreau said. "We wanted to shoot. We wanted to go after the rebounds. And when we did, we got the rebounds, we got chances. But we didn't seem to want to shoot until we got down 2-0."

By then, it was too late. The Caps had one last shot late in the third period, when a power play combined with an empty net gave them a two-man advantage. But Niemi made a couple of nice saves, the clock ticked down and a disappointing loss was in the books, washing away the good vibes that came from a weekend sweep of Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.