By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:33 AM
ATLANTA - Throughout much of the season the Washington Capitals have struggled to put together a complete, 60-minute game. Regularly the team with the best record in the NHL has recovered from its first- or second-period lapses. Friday night against the Atlanta Thrashers, however, things went awry from the start, and there was no turning the game around.
Washington fell, 5-0, in a sluggish game where it never seemed capable of matching the Thrashers' intensity. It was the Capitals' first shutout loss since last Dec. 9, a 3-0 defeat to Buffalo that turned out to be the only time they were held scoreless in the 2009-10 season.
Atlanta goaltender Ondrej Pavelec made 29 saves to earn just his third career shutout and second win over the Capitals in 11 games against them.
"We won't forget about it, but it's one game, not the end of the world," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team will host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7 p.m. Saturday. "Probably as bad of a defeat, I think, I have had since I've been here. We will regroup and come to bat again" on Saturday.
It couldn't have been a worse start for the Capitals and 21-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby, who was making just the third NHL start of his career.
Washington's three-game streak of scoring the first goal came to an abrupt end less than three minutes into the contest. Ben Eager outmaneuvered Tyler Sloan and tipped a shot by Nik Antropov past Holtby. About six minutes later, Antropov scored one of his own to give Atlanta a 2-0 lead. He fired the puck into an empty net after it bounced off Holtby's glove when he came out of the crease in an attempt to cover it.
Before the second tally was announced, Evander Kane, who has scored five of his eight goals this season against Washington, sent a bad-angle shot toward the crease where it ricocheted off Holtby's right leg and in for a 3-0 lead.
The second and third markers were the fastest pair of goals the Capitals have allowed this season and brought Michal Neuvirth from the bench to replace Holtby just 9 minutes 7 seconds into the contest. Neuvirth finished with 29 saves.
"I think I was to blame on all three actually," said Holtby, who allowed three goals on five shots. "It was just one of those days nothing really seemed to feel right. The play seemed to move faster than it usually does and things seemed to happen quicker. I wasn't as sharp on that second goal, that I played it off my glove, not cover it - that's just uncharacteristic and it happens."
The Capitals have relinquished the first period to an opponent several times this season only to come out with energy and momentum in the next frame. But after an initial flurry of shots in the first five minutes of the second period - allowing Washington to take a 16-7 lead in that statistic - the energy quickly reversed.
Matt Bradley missed a wide-open net and Mike Knuble rang a one-timer off the post, and the ice tilted back in Atlanta's favor. The Thrashers took eight of the next nine shots on goal and thwarted yet another Washington power play. The Capitals couldn't muster a shot on net in their first four minutes with the man-advantage and would wind up 0 for 3 on power plays for the game with just one shot.
"At that point we're down 3-0 but there were still 50 minutes of hockey left," Brooks Laich said. "This team averages more than three goals a game; we were still confident we were going to be able to come back. We just weren't able to get one to get the ball rolling."
There may have been no better chance for Washington to crack Pavelec's shutout bid than Alexander Semin's opportunity late in the second. With just less than a minute remaining, Ovechkin and Semin started on a two-on-one into the Thrashers' zone, but Semin's wrist shot sailed wide left of the net and started a play the other way.
Dustin Byfuglien snapped a shot past Neuvirth from the left faceoff circle to make it 4-0 with 50 seconds remaining in the period. It was the first time since March 28 against Calgary that the Capitals faced a four-goal deficit.
"You've got a two-on-one; you've got to hit the net," Boudreau said. "They come down and they score. A couple of our defensemen I thought had real rough nights and that happens. In the third period, I just don't think we competed hard enough to get back in the game."
The Thrashers would add one more goal, this time by rookie Alexander Burmistrov with less than three minutes left for the final margin.
Capitals note: Washington played without Knuble from the midway point of the second period after the veteran was hit in the face by a shot from Eric Fehr on a power play. "He's got an upper body injury and he'll be out for a little while from what I've gathered," Boudreau said.