Two of the three teams impeding their path to the Stanley Cup Playoffs ceded games to inferior opponents Thursday night, leaving the Thrashers a chance to wedge their way into a four-way tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
They did their part for the first 40 minutes, staying with the League's top team, but the Thrashers couldn't produce a critical goal when needed and fell 2-1 to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.
"I'm pleased with our effort and how we played. It is probably our best game we've played against them this year," Atlanta coach John Anderson said. "But it doesn't matter whether is 10-1 or 2-1, it is still zero points for us and that is all that matters."
Matt Bradley scored midway through the third period to help the Capitals snap a three-game losing streak and win for the fifth time in as many tries against the Thrashers.
The Thrashers remain two points behind Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta has four games remaining -- one less than each of the three foes in front of them.
"The result is very disappointing and very hurtful to our chances of sneaking in here," defenseman Ron Hainsey said. "I thought our effort was really good and we didn't turn too many pucks over, but they did the same and were able to get that key goal. That was the difference."
Added Colby Armstrong: "I thought we played pretty solid. I thought we shut down their top guys about as best as we could. We had them where we wanted going into the third and it was tough to give that one up there in the third."
There weren't going to be any style points awarded for this contest, but the Capitals were able to weather a combination of choppy play and tight defense to tie a franchise record with their 50th victory of the season.
Bradley's goal, his first since Jan. 19, put the Capitals in front for good at 9:46 of the third. He outmuscled veteran defenseman Chris Chelios to secure a loose puck in the right faceoff circle and then stuffed a shot through goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
It was Bradley's ninth of the season, which ties a career-high for the 31-year-old grinder.
"It has been a while since he scored, but he does his job," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He knows what his job is -- it is to prevent other people from scoring, not scoring goals. He did it tonight and everyone gets rewarded now and again."
Nicklas Backstrom had the lone goal of an otherwise sloppy first period. Both teams struggled to gain much traction in the offensive zone, but the Capitals' top line went to work late in the period. Backstrom redirected the puck past Pavelec on a feed from defenseman Mike Green at the right point with 57.7 seconds left.
Backstrom reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career and Green matched his career-best of 73 points with the assist. The Capitals had been outscored 9-1 in the first period of the past three games.
"We came out of it with a lead in the first period," Mike Knuble said. "It was a mental thing. It's not like worrying about what's wrong with our game or anything. We just have to be mentally ready to start the game. Other teams can burn you in the first, so you have to be ready."
Tim Stapleton's first goal in an Atlanta uniform leveled the score at one late in the second period. Stapleton chipped the puck off the boards to maneuver past defenseman Tom Poti and then Armstrong poked it back to him as he cut toward the net.
Stapleton lifted a shot past Washington netminder Semyon Varalmov at 17:51 of the second. It was the second goal of his brief NHL career for the 27-year-old undrafted free agent. This was only his fourth game of the season with the Thrashers and eighth in the League.
While the Capitals were able to exhale in their dressing room after putting together their first solid start-to-finish effort in a while, the Thrashers were left to wonder what might have been.
"We really have to pay attention to details and I thought we did that tonight," Green said. "Especially in the last seven minutes -- we were getting pucks deep, guys were going hard [to the net]. That's what it's going to take win in the playoffs."
Notes:Alex Ovechkin had an assist on Backstrom's goal for his lone point of the game. He now has 102 points, which puts him within two of Vancouver's Henrik Sedin pending his game against the Los Angeles Kings later Thursday night.
Varlamov stopped 19 of 20 shots and is now 4-0-0 in his career against the Thrashers. It is the most wins he has against any NHL team.
1 - 0 WSH
1 - 1 Tie