By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; D01
ATLANTA -- Michal Neuvirth and the Washington Capitals wasted little time Saturday burying an Atlanta Thrashers team that's struggling on the ice and dealing with distractions off it.
The rookie goaltender was perfect in the first period, stopping all 18 shots he faced as part of a 38-save night, while an opportunistic Capitals offense struck four times on its first nine shots in an 8-1 victory at Philips Arena.
Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin each scored twice to pace the onslaught, which helped Washington open a pivotal three-game Southeast Division swing with its third straight win overall, fifth in a row over the Thrashers and ninth in 10 division contests.
Knuble, Semin and Mike Green (two assists) earned the first, second and third stars, respectively. But if Coach Bruce Boudreau were picking the stars, instead of the Atlanta media, he said he would have tapped Neuvirth for the top honor as a reward for his first-period heroics.
"They had the puck in our zone the whole first period and we're leading [3-0] after one," Boudreau said. "It's disheartening for the [Thrashers]. Once it got to 5-1, it took a lot of heart out of them."
The Capitals' league-leading offense has scored 17 goals the past three games while matching its highest out put of the season (they beat the Flyers in Philadelphia 8-2 on Dec. 5). Atlanta, meantime, has lost 10 of its past 11 games as trade rumors swirl around their best player and captain, Ilya Kovalchuk. Canadian sports network TSN reported Saturday that General Manager Don Waddell has begun to "feel out" interest from potential trade partners just in case the Thrashers are unable to work out a long-term extension.
Kovalchuk finished without a point for the third straight game, a span in which he has amassed a plus-minus rating of minus-7. But Kovalchuk's lack of production was only part of the Thrashers' problems on this night.
Goaltender Johan Hedberg was pulled by Coach John Anderson after Knuble pushed Washington's lead to 4-0 just 4 minutes 43 seconds into the second period. The goal was Knuble's second of the night and third in two games, and it came the way the rugged winger scores almost all of his goals -- by going hard to the net. Knuble redirected a rebound of a shot from Alex Ovechkin past Hedberg.
"I was just stopping and trying to kick it to my stick," Knuble said. "It didn't work. That's my game, that's what I bring to this team -- the way I scored tonight."
At the other end, Neuvirth turned in another sparkling performance. The rookie thwarted a pair of two-on-one breaks during his dominant first period.
Neuvirth's only blemish was a second-period goal by Maxim Afinogenov, whose shot somehow squeezed between Neuvirth's arm and side to cut the Atlanta lead to 4-1. Neuvirth, 21, has allowed two goals or fewer in six of his past seven starts while filling in for the injured Semyon Varlamov.
"I feel great," said Neuvirth, who limited the Thrashers' second chances by steering rebounds to the corner and smothering others. "I made a couple of huge saves in the first and then the guys got going. Every save gives me more confidence, especially those big saves. I'm getting used to the NHL, and I'm getting better."
The easy win capped a difficult couple of days of travel for the Capitals, who, for the second time in a month, had trouble getting out of Washington because of mechanical issues that grounded their chartered plane at Dulles Airport. This time, a faulty emergency door sensor caused two aborted takeoffs, and after sitting for four hours on the tarmac, the Capitals waited until Saturday to leave. So, instead of arriving Friday afternoon, they arrived in a rush, just in time for the pregame skate.
It's unclear whether those complications contributed to their weak start. Regardless, the Capitals survived Atlanta's push thanks to Neuvirth and made the most of their opportunities.
Knuble opened the scoring with his second goal in two games just 4:44 into the contest. Knuble redirected a point shot from defenseman Tom Poti (goal, two assists) around Hedberg. Poti has at least one point in five straight games, his longest streak since the 2002-03 season.
"He just sort of took it," Boudreau said when asked if he had given Poti the "green light" to jump into the play more. "I told him that he's capable of doing much more, offensively."
After Knuble's first goal, Neuvirth robbed Kovalchuk on an odd-man break later in the first period. Moments later, Semin struck short-handed to make it 2-0. Semin drew a delayed penalty, gathered his own rebound, circled through the Thrashers defense and rifled a wrist shot over Hedberg to notch the Capitals' second short-handed tally of the season.
Nicklas Backstrom's 10th goal in 12 games came on the power play with 19 seconds to play in the first as the Capitals seized control, 3-0.
Washington blew the game open in the third period on goals by Semin, David Steckel, Poti and Jason Chimera, whose goal was his first in a Capitals uniform.
"We don't have to tell anyone that it was the eighth one [for the team]," Chimera said with a laugh. "It's always nice to get your first one. Maybe it will get the ball rolling."
Capitals notes: Defenseman John Erskine suffered an undisclosed injury and did not play again after his first shift in the third period. . . . Tyler Sloan and Quintin Laing were healthy scratches.