By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:22 AM
In a game in which the Washington Capitals had plenty of opportunities to take the lead in the third period, it was one of the most unlikely candidates who broke the stalemate against the Atlanta Thrashers.
From the top left-hand corner of the offensive zone, rugged defenseman John Erskine wound up for a one-timer of David Steckel's drop pass. Erskine's shot blistered past Thrashers backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec for his second goal in four games, a tally that put the Capitals up by a goal with just less than seven minutes remaining in regulation. The goal stood as the game-winner, as Washington outshot Atlanta, 13-7, in the third period for a 6-4 win on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
The win marked the eighth straight game a Capitals defenseman has scored. Six blue-liners have accounted for 11 goals during the span.
"Stecks did a good drop pass there and [the Thrashers] had two guys driving the net and they kind of created a screen, just left a little spot there, and it went in it," said Erskine, who has four points and a plus-three rating in the past five contests. "It's just the last few games, I've been getting lucky and getting some shots on net."
Erskine's goal and an empty-net tally by his set-up man, Steckel, capped a strong third period for the Capitals. They limited the Thrashers to minimal scoring chances or even time in the offensive zone during the final 20 minutes to bookend one of their best starts of the season as Washington took a lead and advantage of a shaky performance by Chris Mason, Atlanta's starting goaltender.
For as well as the Capitals played in the opening and closing frames, they had an equally dreadful second period in which they exhibited little composure but plenty of turnovers and yielded three goals. In the period, Erskine tangled with Atlanta's Eric Boulton, but the Thrashers followed with a short-handed goal.
"We haven't strung together a good 40 minutes," said Steckel, who broke a five-game pointless streak and finished with a plus-three rating in the game. "We come out with a good 20 and then our second 20 is lacking energy. Teams might not play their best in the first, then they come out harder and we're not responding, so it's something we want to fix. We haven't played a 60-minute game in a couple games now."
In the first, the Capitals came out fast and Alex Ovechkin's shot bounced off Mason's stick and into the net for a 1-0 Washington lead 1 minute 30 seconds into the contest. They peppered Mason, who struggled to play the puck, until he relinquished another tally - a power-play goal by Mike Green.
The teams traded markers in the final seven minutes, with Rich Peverley knocking the puck in after it bounced on Michal Neuvirth's back and Alexander Semin answering with his 13th of the season. Washington entered the second period with a seemingly comfortable 3-1 lead, but then allowed a trio of goals to the Thrashers in nine minutes of the second.
Atlanta winger Andrew Ladd threw a shot at the net from a bad angle as he stood near the goal line toward the right-side boards just 1:12 into the period. Neuvirth was caught cheating toward center ice and was beaten near-side. Neuvirth made 23 saves by game's end, but that goal gave the Thrashers hope of a comeback.
Washington answered with a bad-angle goal of its own when Matt Hendricks scored his third of the season to make it 4-2 a little more than a minute later, prompting the Thrashers to pull Mason in favor of Pavelec. Mason allowed four goals on 16 shots, while Pavelec became the goaltender of record and gave up one tally on 16 attempts.
Whether it was the act of switching goaltenders or simply the mistake-prone, back-and-forth style that was quickly becoming the norm, the Thrashers' Bryan Little scored on a rebound to make it 4-3 in the next minute.
Instead of creating scoring chances, the Capitals allowed a pair of short-handed breakaways for the Thrashers, the first of which resulted in Atlanta's fourth goal, which tied the score. After a turnover by Ovechkin at center ice that gave Ladd a clean breakaway, Neuvirth made an initial save, but a poke from Little made the puck ricochet off the top of the goaltender's mask and into the net.
"We talked in between the second and third" about the letdown, Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We don't want to win games 6-4. We don't want this reputation and that we want to be able to shut teams down. Right now we're doing it for two periods and we're having little brain cramps and it's costing us. But there's 60 some games left, hopefully by then we'll have learned how."