ATLANTA -- They were sloppy at times. Their power play turned in the worst performance their coach said he'd ever seen during his tenure. Still, on a strange night at Philips Arena, the defending Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals held off the upstart Atlanta Thrashers’ late charge for a 5-4 victory.
Jeff Schultz’s 175-foot "shot" at 10:20 of the second period started the Capitals on a run of three goals in 88 seconds that proved decisive as Washington moved three points ahead of Atlanta for the division lead, despite the Thrashers’ two games in hand.
Atlanta (4-2-1) had tied the second-best start in franchise history and done so impressively, playing five straight games on the road after its season opener.
"I never felt comfortable once that whole game," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I ended up thinking, 'This is going to be 6-5,' but I ended up saying that in the middle of the second period. Somebody's going to win 6-5 because I just saw pucks bouncing and energy-wise for both teams wasn't what it should be. But we'll take the win."
Ilya Kovalchuk scored twice, including once on a 6-on-4 with 38.5 seconds left in regulation, pulling Atlanta within one and tying him for the League lead in goals with Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. Both players have nine.
Adding to the odd nature of the game was that Ovechkin, who entered with 23 goals and 26 assists in 30 career games against Atlanta, was held without a point for only the second time in nine games on the season and was relatively quiet on the night. He was even and was called for tripping with 30 seconds left in regulation, but had only four shots – 2.7 below his average of last season – in 24 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time.
The game turned in the second period when Schultz, one of four Caps to score his first goal of the season on Thursday, cleared the puck from his own right faceoff dot. The shot bounded the length of the ice, appeared to hit an Atlanta defenseman at his own blue line and then evaded the catching glove of Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Matt Bradley converted a loose rebound of Schultz’s shot 1:14 later for his third goal of the season, then Washington captain Chris Clark netted his first of the season 14 seconds after that, leading Atlanta coach John Anderson to pull Pavelec for the first time this season. Pavelec, who entered with a 2.37 goals-against average in five games, yielded five goals on 14 shots in 22 minutes.
"It was a mercy pull," Atlanta coach John Anderson said. "Ondrej was rattled. The whole team was rattled."
Pavelec lamented that the puck took a strange bounce.
"Oh, it's probably going to be on the top 10 tomorrow [on ESPN’s SportsCenter]," he said. "But it was a long shot and lucky bounces and it hit the ice and changed direction straight over my shoulder."
Boudreau credited the ice for his team's good fortune.
"If you had to skate on that ice, I'm amazed that anybody made a flat pass," he said. "The ice was so bad. As bad as I've seen any ice."
Maybe that had something to do with why Washington could not convert 12 minutes of power play time, as the Capitals went 0-for-7.
"I didn’t think our No. 1 line was very productive and our special teams -- that was probably our power play's worst night in the three years that I've been here," Boudreau said of Ovechkin, Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom, all of whom went without a point.
But four Capitals – Schultz, Eric Fehr, Alexandre Giroux and Clark – all scored their first goals of the season.
Atlanta's new top line – an all-Russian trio of Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinogenov and Nik Antropov – finished with six points. Afinogenov scored an early power-play goal.
"When everybody speaks the language and we play together before -- it's real easy," Kovalchuk said. "It doesn't matter who you play with. When you work hard, good things happen to you."
While the Capitals (5-2-2) were grateful for the two points, Knuble said they were not exactly pleased with how the team is playing.
"It’s not easy now for us to win games," he said. "Something's always going to happen. But we'll keep plugging away. But it's a win and we'll move on."
Kovalchuk left feeling far different. As the final seconds ticked off, he and Afinogenov both had chances at open net but could not get one past Semyon Varlamov (22 saves) who remained unbeaten at 4-0.
"That second period was a couple of bad bounces, but that's the game," Kovalchuk said. "That's hockey … I think we deserve more than zero points after this game."
-- John Manasso, NHL.com Correspondent