By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009
ATLANTA -- Washington Capitals won their sixth game in a row and earned two points on the road against a Southeast Division opponent on Thursday night. But you wouldn't have known it after seeing the scowl on Coach Bruce Boudreau's face as he emerged from the visitors' dressing room at Philips Arena, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
Boudreau had just watched his team build a three-goal lead against the Atlanta Thrashers, let up late in the second period, then hang on for a frantic 4-3 victory that got much too close for comfort in the waning moments.
Although the Capitals' effort was good enough to beat the Ilya Kovalchuk-less Thrashers, Boudreau knows it probably wouldn't have been good enough against a more formidable foe.
"We need to be able to finish teams off when we have the chance," he said. "We need that killer instinct and we haven't had that killer instinct. We let teams right back in the game."
The lack of killer instinct nearly ruined what began as a potential blowout before a sparse crowd.
In the first period, Alex Ovechkin extended his league-leading goal total with his 12 and 13th tallies of the season, marking his sixth two-goal performance in 12 games. Then early in the second, Brendan Morrison scored the Capitals' second power-play goal of the night, marking the first time since the season opener they recorded two on the same night.
But instead of clamping down, it seemed like some of the Capitals decided to give themselves the rest of the night off.
"I thought with about seven minutes to go in the second period, we thought this was going to be easy," Boudreau said. "And then we stopped skating and stopped playing. But I knew once they got one goal, just like last time, they would be flying. It's not like a faucet. You can't turn it on and off when you want."
But they definitely turned it off -- and it almost cost them the game.
With Tyler Sloan in the penalty box for hooking, Zach Bogosian scored the first of his two goals to cut the Capitals' lead to 3-1. That gave Atlanta the boost it needed in its first game without Kovalchuk, who is sidelined a month with a broken foot.
The Thrashers ended up putting 20 shots on goal in the third period alone, forcing goaltender Semyon Varlamov (38 saves) to repeatedly bail out his teammates.
Varlamov, however, was helpless to stop Todd White's breakaway goal with 2 minutes 23 seconds left to play. White sneaked behind Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn, and after taking a long pass from Slava Kozlov, broke in on Varlamov alone. Like that, it was 3-2 and the Capitals were left scrambling.
"We have to learn to let our lead just carry us through the third period," veteran defenseman Brian Pothier said. "We want to make the jump from a good team to a great team. That third period is what we need to fix. Every night we're not going to go out and play an amazing game; we're going to have breakdowns. But it's something we're going to have to address. When we have the lead in the third period, we have to become a team that just shuts them down."
Atlanta, it seemed, simply ran out of time. Coach John Anderson was forced to pull goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in favor of an extra attacker as the Thrashers pushed for the equalizer. Instead of pulling even, however, Mike Knuble ended the suspense with an empty-net goal.
But in a fitting end to a game the Capitals would like to forget, Bogosian scored with less than a second remaining to provide the final margin.
The near collapse left Ovechkin searching for answers.
"I don't know why," the two-time MVP said, shrugging. "We just stopped playing. It can't happen right now against a team in our division. When we got so much lead, we stopped playing our way. It can't be like that."
Boudreau said what upset him most was that Varlamov was left to fend for himself so often in the third period. Varlamov even stopped a penalty shot, turning back Jim Slater in the first period to preserve the Capitals' 1-0 lead.
"I wasn't happy for Varly," Boudreau said. "He plays an outstanding game and ends up with three goals on him. Nothing he could do. He kept us in the game in the third period. It's ridiculous how we just let up and let the other teams back into the game. It's very frustrating."
Boudreau said he plans to give his players a stern talking to when they arrive for a team meeting prior to Friday's home game against the New York Islanders. "I don't like ranting and raving after a game, especially when you've won," Boudreau said. "I would rather sleep on it and say something intelligent tomorrow, rather than something emotional tonight."
Capitals notes: Tomas Fleischmann was credited with three shots and a hit in 16:07 of ice time in the winger's return from a blood clot in his left leg. Fleischmann received 3:21 of power-play time. . . .
Quintin Laing (swine flu), Eric Fehr (sore ribs) and John Erskine (bruised hand) were scratches.