By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
ATLANTA, April 7 -- In each of their previous visits to Philips Arena this season, the Washington Capitals left wondering how an Atlanta Thrashers team so far behind them in the standings had beaten them so badly.
In the third and final meeting here, rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov made sure they had no such regrets.
Varlamov stopped 29 shots, including the final 18 he faced, and Sergei Fedorov scored an insurance goal late in the third period to help the Washington Capitals earn a ho-hum 4-2 victory that was described by Coach Bruce Boudreau as "ugly."
"I think we played just as good as we had to play," said Boudreau, whose team had suffered 7-4 and 5-1 losses here earlier this season.
The victory, Washington's fourth in the past five games (4-0-1), edged it closer to clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals now lead the New Jersey Devils 106-102 with both teams having two games left to play.
Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, registered a pair of assists but failed to gain any ground on Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the race for a second straight scoring title. Malkin notched two assists in the Penguins' 6-4 win in Tampa to retain a two-point cushion, 110-108. Malkin also has two games remaining.
Ovechkin was pleased with the result but not particularly impressed with the Capitals' performance or the revamped top line, which comprised him, Fedorov and Alexander Semin. The trio accounted for two goals, but Ovechkin said they lacked cohesion and combined for too many turnovers.
"There were no emotions, no good crowd, you know?" he said. "It was hard to play hockey here. It's a hard situation for Atlanta right now. It's only two games in the season and they go to vacation. We're in the playoffs. All of our minds are in the playoffs."
Ovechkin was also the subject of some teasing by the Thrashers that Boudreau called "tasteless."
Late in the first period, the game production staff poked fun at Ovechkin's Eastern Motors commercial in which the reigning MVP sings and dances awkwardly. The video ended with Thrashers all-star Ilya Kovalchuk looking at the camera and shaking his head before saying, "Ovie, next time call me."
Ovechkin cracked a smile when it was shown and later said he had no problem with the video. Boudreau, though, was not happy.
"I like the stuff they do, but I thought that was over the line," Boudreau said. "I know it was all in fun, but that was over the line. I wasn't a big fan of that. If they want to mock their own players, fine, mock their own players like that."
Boudreau was a fan of Varlamov's performance, however. The 20-year-old improved to 4-0-1 and was the Capitals' best penalty killer on a night when he had to be, stopping all six short-handed shots the Thrashers fired on him. Atlanta's power play went 0 for 6; Washington's second-ranked unit only received one opportunity, and it didn't come until the third period.
"Varly played really, really good," Boudreau said. "We left him out to dry a few times."
Boudreau again tinkered with his forward lines as he continued to search for balance heading into the playoffs. The new combinations played to mixed reviews. Ovechkin, Fedorov and Semin -- the unit that was dominant for Team Russia at last year's world championships -- struggled. But the second line of Tomas Fleischmann, Nicklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov soared.
Fleischmann scored for the second time in two games after a 15-game goal drought, netting the game's first tally at 8 minutes 20 seconds. He carried the puck in below the goal line, then passed back through the crease between Ondrej Pavelec (22 saves) and the goal post. Thrashers center Marty Reasoner fumbled the puck and ended up kicking it into his own net to put the Capitals ahead 1-0.
Rich Peverley evened the score 68 seconds later thanks to a giveaway in the Washington zone by defenseman Milan Jurcina. But goals by Kozlov and Semin sent the Capitals into the first intermission leading 3-1.
In the second period, Reasoner redeemed himself, redirecting a point shot by Tobias Enstrom between Varlamov's pads to cut the Capitals' lead to 3-2. That, however, was as close as Varlamov would allow the Thrashers to get.
"I think he stood on his head," Fedorov said. "It's not easy to make those saves. He saved our [butts]."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Tom Poti was given the night off to rest the groin muscle that has sidelined him three times. . . .
Donald Brashear accompanied the team on the road trip, but he missed his 12th consecutive game with a sprained left knee.