By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
ATLANTA, March 16 -- The Washington Capitals have put forth a number of weak efforts against opponents who are significantly behind them in the standings.
But they might have sunk to a new low during Monday's 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that began the night with 30 fewer points than Washington and did not have leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk.
The score sheet suggests the Capitals were simply shut down by a dominant performance by Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen, who made 49 saves. But that's not how Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau saw things on a night when the Thrashers opened a 4-0 edge and chased José Theodore from the net.
"Kari Lehtonen was great all game," Boudreau said. "But we were still really bad in the first two periods. We did everything wrong that a team could do."
Boudreau, as usual, was blunt as he ticked off his team's deficiencies:
Two hits in the first period and a meager eight for the game.
A 29 percent success rate on faceoffs through two periods.
A penalty kill that did not pressure the puck.
An attack that was content to fire shots from the perimeter.
Those are all indications of a team that did not play with enough effort or passion.
"It was a lot of effort issues," Boudreau said.
But of all the things that dragged the Southeast Division-leading Capitals down to the level of their opponent on Monday, what annoyed Boudreau most was his players' continued unwillingness to go to the front of the net and disrupt Lehtonen. As good as Lehtonen was, he saw most of the attempts and was seldom forced to move side-to-side. He also did not face many quality second chances.
"Among the things we talked about between the second and third [periods] was that we're not going to score on this guy tonight unless someone goes to the front of the net," Boudreau said. "If you look at our past few games we're getting all pretty goals and power-play goals. But nobody's willing to get dirty. Until we learn to get dirty and get in front of the net, the guys who are stuck on 'X' amount of goals are going to stay stuck on 'X' amount of goals."
Indications of another forgettable night in Atlanta -- the Thrashers throttled the Capitals here, 7-4, on opening night -- came early in front of a sparse crowd at Philips Arena.
Colby Armstrong scored for the Thrashers first when his shot took a fortuitous bounce off defenseman Shaone Morrisonn's skate 10 minutes 13 seconds in. But at least three Capitals could have prevented the play from happening. Thrashers center Rich Peverley skated through Tom Poti, Alex Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov before backhanding the puck off Theodore's pad. The rebound came out to Armstrong, who was causing a ruckus in front of the net.
Atlanta's next three goals -- by Slava Kozlov, Anssi Salmela and Tobias Enstrom -- all victimized a Capitals' penalty-kill unit that failed to pressure the puck carrier and clear the zone when the opportunity presented itself. As a result, Theodore was replaced with rookie Simeon Varlamov.
Boudreau defended Theodore, whom he named the starter for Tuesday's game in Sunrise, Fla. Theodore faced 19 shots.
"I'm sick and tired of him bailing our team out and him not getting the support that he deserves," Boudreau said. "You look at his goals against or save percentage and you say it should be better. But when you have to stop goals like that first goal [where] four guys just waved their stick at the guy, what are you supposed to do?"
Ovechkin entered the game with 16 career goals in 16 games against Lehtonen (his most against any goalie) and 23 goals against the Thrashers (his most against any opponent). But Lehtonen stopped him 10 times.
The Capitals launched 20 shots on Lehtonen in the third period, but again few came on rebounds. One of the few that did was poked in by Eric Fehr with 1:15 remaining in a game that had been decided.
Despite the ugly defeat, Monday night was a victory for one Capitals defenseman. Brian Pothier made his return to the NHL, more than 14 months after a concussion -- its lingering effects almost costing him his career.
Pothier played 16:51, took three shots and improved steadily throughout the night. He was, however, in the penalty box for hooking when Kozlov scored and contributed to a penalty that his partner John Erskine was forced to take. "I thought he was really tentative in the first period and was doing way more watching than he was skating," Boudreau said of Pothier. "But he got a little better as the game went on. But it's his first game in 14 months, so I'm not going to hold him too accountable."
Capitals Notes: Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov missed the game with the flu. Donald Brashear was sidelined with a sprained knee.