By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; D01
In desperate need of a jump-start Thursday night, the Washington Capitals got one from a player who hadn't appeared on the score sheet in more than two months.
Matt Bradley scored his first goal in 26 games, and Semyon Varlamov stopped all but one of the 20 shots he faced to lift the Capitals to a 2-1 victory at Verizon Center that snapped a three-game losing streak and put a ding in the Atlanta Thrashers' playoff hopes.
"I felt like I was getting a lot of chances and just not burying them," Bradley said of his drought. "It's a snowball thing, you don't score in 10 games, you start to think about. Then [it's] 20 games. Let's just say it felt good to score tonight. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders."
Although Bradley is known more for throwing body checks and, occasionally, his fists, the energy-line winger showed another side of his game midway through the third period of a tight-checking contest that had the feel of a playoff game. Bradley knocked 48-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios off the puck deep in the Atlanta end, then made a strong move to the net and deposited it between Ondrej Pavelec's pads at 9 minutes 46 seconds to match his career high for goals and points with nine and 22, respectively.
"He did what he's supposed to do: He took it to the net, and I don't know how it went in, but it snuck in somehow underneath him," Coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Varlamov also ended a personal drought on a night when the Capitals equaled the franchise record for wins with No. 50. The rookie had lost six of his previous seven appearances (1-3-3) while surrendering 24 goals in those games. But against the Thrashers he put together the 60-minute effort Boudreau had been seeking, an effort that may have added intrigue to the battle for the starting job in the playoffs.
"It was a great confidence boost for him," Boudreau said. "He hadn't won in a while and held them to one goal. I didn't think they had a great many chances, but the chances they had were good ones and he was up to the task."
Varlamov's best save came early in a scoreless game. Maxim Afinogenov, one of the fastest skaters in the game, split the Capitals' defense and skated in alone of his countryman. Afinogenov deked, but Varlamov kicked out his left pad to foil his attempt.
"Tonight, when he needed to make a big save he did, and that motivates us to play harder," said Mike Green, who matched his career high for points -- 73 -- when he set up Nicklas Backstrom's 30th goal in the first period.
As important this game was for the Capitals, it meant exponentially more to the Thrashers, who could have moved closer to the franchise's second playoff berth in its 10-year history with a win. Instead, Atlanta remained in ninth place, two points out.
"I thought it was a playoff game," Boudreau said. "I mean it was tense and there weren't a lot of shots. But those are the hardest games to play because you have to stay focused. I thought we beared down and we proved we can play defensive when we want to and have to. Tonight was one of those nights."
Alex Ovechkin, meantime, notched an assist but now has only four goals in his past 16 games, a drought that is threatening his chances of winning the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies. The Capitals have only five games remaining.
Thursday night, though, was more about Washington putting an end to a slump.
After being outscored by a combined 9-1 in the first period of the previous three games, the Capitals outshot the Thrashers 7-6 and took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission on a late goal by Backstrom, who steered Green's slap pass around Pavelec.
The Thrashers pulled even in the second period on Tim Stapleton's first goal of the season. Stapleton made a bounce pass off the boards around defenseman Tom Poti to Colby Armstrong, who made a nice dish back to Stapleton through Shaone Morrisonn.
But the Capitals, who have proved all season that the third is their best period, did it once again.
"The first two periods were kind of boring, a lot of whistles and not a lot happening," Bradley said. "But those are the kinds of games that Bruce has talked about us being mentally tough, waiting it out and not making any stupid moves and our breaks would come. And that happened in the third period [when] I was lucky enough to get one."
Capitals notes: By sitting out with an upper-body injury, rookie John Carlson will not appear in more than 25 games this season and thus remains eligible for next year's Calder Trophy. . . .
Brendan Morrison missed his third consecutive game with a groin strain, but he is expected to skate before the end of the week. . . . Asked about Brooks Laich's return to the lineup, Boudreau joked, "He completes us," before adding with a chuckle, "That was stupid."