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Blowing third-period leads to one of the league's worst teams isn't going to help the Carolina Hurricanes reach the playoffs. Beating one of the Eastern Conference's top clubs would certainly help.
Carolina (32-27-5) appeared on the way to its fifth win in six games with a two-goal lead midway through the third period Saturday night at Atlanta - the league's worst home team. The Thrashers, however, stunned the Hurricanes by scoring four straight goals en route to a 5-3 victory.
"They kept coming," Carolina goalie Cam Ward said. "They didn't have as much to lose as we did. They looked more like a team playing for a playoff spot than we did. There are teams to be caught."
A win would have put Carolina among the top eight teams in the East, but the Hurricanes instead remained tied with Buffalo for ninth, one point behind Pittsburgh.
Ward, who stopped 27 of 31 shots, gave up more than three goals for the first time in six starts.
"I was disappointed in the third period," he said. "That was the worst one we've had this year. Maybe we ran out of gas."
Ward figures to make his 12th consecutive start overall and second this season against the Capitals (40-19-5). He made 30 saves in a 3-2 loss at Washington on Nov. 6, and is 10-5-1 with a 2.59 goals-against average in 17 meetings.
While Carolina hopes just to reach the playoffs, Washington appears a lock for its second straight division title and one of the top three seeds in the conference.
The Capitals, though, also are coming off a disappointing loss, having allowed four first-period goals in a 6-2 home defeat to Florida on Sunday.
Alexander Semin scored in the first period and Ovechkin added his league-leading 46th goal in the final minute, but Washington failed to earn its third straight win.
"We got beat to every loose puck. It seemed like they had the puck in the power play for the whole two minutes in our zone every time," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I can't sugarcoat it and I can't find excuses for it. We weren't very good."
Jose Theodore was pulled for the first time since his season debut, yielding four goals on 17 first-period shots. With only rookie Michal Neuvirth as his backup, Theodore is likely to be back in net Tuesday despite his 1-4-0 record and 5.43 GAA in his last five starts against the Hurricanes.
Ovechkin's goal was his ninth in as many games and gave him points in five straight. He has one goal and six assists in three contests this season against Carolina.
Ovechkin deservedly receives most of the credit for the Capitals' success the last two seasons, but center Nicklas Backstrom also has emerged as one of the league's young stars.
The second-year Swede is second on the team with 68 points - one shy of his rookie season total - and has four goals and nine assists during a career-high 10-game point streak - the longest current run in the NHL.
Washington won the first two meetings in the season series before losing 3-1 at Carolina on Dec. 7.