Commentary

Discontent early on for Sharks, Capitals

Updated: October 15, 2009, 3:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The San Jose Sharks visit the Washington Capitals on Thursday night.

Start rubbing your hands together with glee.

Two of the most prolific teams in the NHL squaring off.

Two teams that boast the top-scoring players since the lockout in Alex Ovechkin (432 points) and Joe Thornton (431) in a crucial, early season test for two Stanley Cup contenders.

Two teams that boast five of the top nine point-getters in this early NHL season in Ovechkin, Thornton, Dany Heatley, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Should be a tilt, no?

So, why are the respective coaches, Todd McLellan of San Jose and Bruce Boudreau of Washington, looking so grim?

Gee, you'd think they were old roommates or something.

Oh, they were.

"He's a good man," McLellan said of his first pro roommate. "He's quite a character."

The two first met when McLellan was a 20-year-old rookie with the AHL's Springfield Indians and Boudreau was winding down a long, prolific career that was mostly spent toiling in the minors.

"I showed him the ropes. Actually he was a good boy," Boudreau said, adding that McLellan was generally preparing to bed down for the night when Boudreau was preparing to go out.

"One of us had to be good," McLellan quipped.

If both coaches share the love of a good joke and a good time, they likewise share a common trait of having high expectations for their talented teams.

In some ways, the Sharks and the Caps are mirror images of mild discontent. The Capitals have jumped on opponents early, scoring first in five of their six games and yet they are just 2-2-1 in those games, 2-2-2 overall.

Boudreau said if his squad was an eight-cylinder car ("I don't even know if they make eight cylinder cars anymore," he mused), "we'd be running on seven cylinders. We don't have the killer instinct at this point."

The Sharks, meanwhile, have allowed the first goal in five of six games and have yet to salvage points in three of those five games, going 2-2-1. They are 3-2-1 overall.

It's not just the team's starts that have the coaching staff worried, McLellan said. The coaches aren't happy with the team's overall play.

"We haven't been able to put our play together on both sides of the puck," he said.

Some nights, the offense is clicking and the defense lets down, as it did the night the L.A. Kings beat the Sharks 6-4. Other nights, the defense/goaltending is primed, but the offense goes dry, as it did the other night in a 1-0 shootout loss to Phoenix.

"We need to put it all together," McLellan said.

Given the talent at both coaches' disposal, the challenge for both is to get their players' mental games in focus.

"Physically, we're prepared to be engaged," McLellan said. "Mentally, I don't think we're fully engaged yet."

Perhaps it's understandable. Both teams are coming off disappointing playoff finishes this past spring; the Sharks were dispatched in the first round by Anaheim after winning the Presidents' Trophy, while Washington lost a heartbreaker in the second round to eventual champion Pittsburgh in a series Washington led 2-0.

McLellan acknowledged the Sharks' disappointing playoff past, but pointed out this Sharks lineup is dramatically different than last season's, both in terms of personnel and dynamic.

"The only thing that hasn't changed are our expectations," he said.

The key change in personnel, of course, has been the addition of 50-goal man Heatley, whose summer of discontent has morphed into a sizzling start to this campaign as the former Ottawa sniper has spent most of the time playing on the Sharks' top line with Thornton and Devin Setoguchi.

McLellan said he was worried about Heatley's quickness when he first arrived in San Jose, but that worry has faded as the winger has become more familiar with what is expected of him. His ability to shoot in traffic and while being physically confronted has impressed McLellan. It is that rare ability that separates the 20- or 25-goal scorer from someone of Heatley's ability, the coach noted.

Stopping Heatley and the rest of the balanced San Jose attack Thursday looks to fall to veteran netminder Jose Theodore, and it is a mild surprise that the one area of the Caps' game that has come into focus early on has been their goaltending.

When untested rookie Semyon Varlamov supplanted the veteran Theodore in Game 2 of the 2009 playoffs, it appeared Theodore would be an afterthought this season and Varlamov would naturally assume the starter's role. Yet Varlamov struggled through training camp and early this season, and Theodore has supplied top-notch goaltending, even if he hasn't the victories to show for it, a function of the team's inability to hold leads and penchant for taking ill-timed penalties.

"I'd really like to get a win for him," Boudreau said of Theodore, who has a 1-2-2 record and 2.65 goals-against average.

As for Varlamov, Boudreau said people forget the native of Samara, Russia, is still a young man (21) with just a handful of NHL games to his credit. Boudreau also noted Varlamov has developed a tendency to allow goals in bunches.

"Sometimes you have to take a step back," he said. "Sometimes it's a daunting task. He's so hard on himself. He's like a golfer that has to fight to forget the last hole and play the next hole."

Thursday's game ends a seven-game stretch for the Capitals that has included contests with Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit and the New York Rangers. By the time this season is 10 games old, Boudreau predicted, "We will find out where we stand."

Playing a team like San Jose is a great test, Boudreau added, another benchmark for a team still looking to hit on all cylinders.

No doubt his old roomie feels the same way.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.