Retooled Capitals Start Fast

The Capitals' Alex Ovechkin celebrates with teammates Tom Poti (3) and Mike Green (52) after a goal by Victor Kozlov in the third period.
The Capitals' Alex Ovechkin celebrates with teammates Tom Poti (3) and Mike Green (52) after a goal by Victor Kozlov in the third period. (John Bazemore - AP Photo)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007

ATLANTA, Oct. 5 -- The Atlanta Thrashers raised their Southeast Division championship banner to the rafters in front of a capacity crowd Friday night. The noise inside Philips Arena was deafening, the atmosphere electric.

But the retooled Washington Capitals made sure the good times were short-lived. With a potent attack, a disciplined defense and a solid performance by goaltender Brent Johnson, the visitors stunned the 18,707 on hand, hanging on for a 3-1 victory in the season opener for both teams.

It marked the start of what Washington hopes will be a new era for the franchise. The Capitals debuted a much-improved lineup led by impact free agents Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and 2006 first-round draft pick Nicklas Backstrom. The newcomers wasted little time leaving their mark -- Nylander and Kozlov had goals and Backstrom notched an assist for his first NHL point.

"I felt good," Backstrom, 19, said of his first regular season NHL game. "It was nice for me to get a point, but it was more important for us to get a win."

The infusion of talent was obvious from the outset, even with the absence of 38-goal scorer Alexander Semin, who did not travel with the team because of a sprained right ankle. The Capitals' passes connected, the power play applied pressure, the penalty kill was disruptive. The line of Alex Ovechkin, Kozlov and Tomas Fleischmann was dominant at both ends of the ice.

"The three [free agents] we signed this summer, were a huge, huge plus for us," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "They did things smart, things veteran guys do."

Hanlon said he decided to start Johnson for two reasons: The backup goalie was razor sharp in the preseason and, with three games in the season's first four days, the coach wanted to have Olie Kolzig fresh for Saturday's home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes and Monday's matinee on Long Island. Kolzig has more wins over Carolina (25) and the Islanders (24) than any other teams.

It was the first time since 2000 that Kolzig, the Capitals' longest tenured player, did not start the season opener. He had knee surgery that year and missed the first three games.

"My whole thought process on the decision was this: we play three games in such a short period of time, [Kolzig] can't play all three of them," Hanlon said. "And Johnny doesn't deserve to sit all three of them. That's not right because of the way he played in training camp."

Johnson had a 1.14 goals against average and .941 in exhibition games. He was equally impressive Friday, stopping 28 shots, including a three-shot second period burst started by Thrashers' all-star Marian Hossa.

"Their goalie came up with some good saves at key times," Thrashers' Coach Bob Hartley said.

The game started about eight minutes later than usual because of the banner raising ceremony. And while the Thrashers seemed to feed off the energy in the building in the opening minutes, it became clear midway through the opening period that the Capitals were the stronger team.

Nylander put the Capitals ahead 1-0 with a power play goal. After his wrist shot sneaked through a screen, he alertly tracked down the linesman to retrieve the puck. Not for himself, but because it marked Backstrom's first NHL point.

Defenseman John Erskine, a player known more for his body checks and haymakers than his scoring touch, found the net 82 seconds later to put the Capitals ahead 2-0. He scored on an ordinary slap shot from between the circle and the blueline. It was Erskine's first goal with a goaltender in net since March 14, 2005 (his lone tally came with an empty net.) "That's just the way I shoot the puck," he said smiling.

In the second period, Thrashers' rookie Bryan Little threw a backhander from an awkward angle off of Johnson's pads and into the net. Johnson, who had been moving across the crease, appeared stunned by Little's shot, which pulled the Thrashers to within 2-1.

Atlanta, which got 37 saves from goaltender Kari Lehtonen, killed off a five on three advantage that lasted 1 minute 45 seconds a few minutes later and appeared to gain some momentum heading into the third period. But Kozlov redirected a point by Mike Green 5:27 into final frame to restore Washington's two goal edge and put the game out of reach.

"It's very important to start the season the right way," Kozlov said. "Right now we need to continue the same way. It's going to begin again for us tomorrow."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company