By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007
The frustration that has come to define the Washington Capitals' season only intensified last night on the bench and in the seats at Verizon Center, where the streaking Atlanta Thrashers cruised to an all-too-easy 5-1 victory.
After a promising start, the Capitals again buckled under the strain of a historic slump as the Ilya Kovalchuk-led Thrashers scored five unanswered goals.
The fans who showed up let the home team have it during an erratic second period, then again in the third. Who could blame them? The chants of "Fire Hanlon" also seemed to be louder and more intense than in Monday's 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers.
The Capitals' players, meantime, spoke in hushed tones and broken thoughts, as they struggled to put into words the disappointment of yet another defeat in a long line of losses that have crushed the team's confidence and perhaps extinguished its playoff aspirations.
For those still keeping track, the defeat was the Capitals' fifth straight, ninth in 10 games and eighth in 10 games at home. Their 13 points not only are the fewest in the league, it's the franchise's lowest total after 21 games in 26 years.
"It's tough," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "Sports is really tough when these situations happen. That's why we've played so well in first periods, because we've had time to regroup for a couple of days, get away. You come in with renewed enthusiasm and you believe this is the night where it's going to happen."
"When something goes wrong," he added, "you revert back and think back on negative things."
Hanlon added that it's the worst stretch he has experienced in his career, both as a coach and a player.
"For spurts, we were intense, we were on pucks, we were battling," captain Chris Clark said. "We let down, they score. It happens every time. We turn over, they score."
Asked about the boos and jeers, Clark said: "If we were in a different city, there would be a lot more pressure. It could be a lot worse than it is right now."
General Manager George McPhee declined to comment when asked to address his team's woes.
Early on this season, the Capitals' biggest problems were injuries and the inability to score. The past few games, though, it has been that inability to score plus a laundry list of other issues, from players taking overlong shifts to poorly executed line changes and turnovers. Don't forget the ever-present problems on special teams. (Last night, their only goal came on the power play, but two of the Thrashers' strikes, including the game winner, also came with the man advantage.)
Against the Thrashers, it was a bit of everything.
"We were careless," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "We made some plays that burnt us. It seems like that has been the story for us. Everything we give to somebody, they just take full advantage of it right now."
Alex Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead with his 14th goal 2 minutes 27 seconds into the second period after firing an off-balance shot past Johan Hedberg (31 saves).
After that, it was all Thrashers, who cruised to their seventh win in eight games, and 11th out of 15 since GM Don Waddell took over behind the bench after firing coach Bob Hartley following an 0-6 start.
Atlanta's first goal began with Kovalchuk (two goals, two assists) initiating a give-and-go with defenseman Niclas Havelid, who returned the puck to the powerful winger as he broke into the Capitals' zone. Kovalchuk beat Capitals defenseman Tom Poti to the slot, then fired the puck under Kozlig's blocker to make it 1-1 at 6:55. Kolzig finished with 20 saves.
Bobby Holik put the Thrashers ahead 2-1 on the power play at 16:05. The hulking captain pounced on a rebound then flipped the puck over Kolzig, who was still sprawled from making the initial save on Hossa from in close.
Atlanta wasn't done. Havelid snapped a shot from the top of the circle after taking a perfectly placed pass from Kovalchuk. Havelid had just come off the bench after a line change and was left unmarked as he wound up and fired to put the visitors ahead 3-1.
Third-period goals by Kovalchuk and Eric Perrin provided the final margin.
"There's little room for error when you're losing," Pothier said. "You have to play a perfect game. You have to."