WASHINGTON – Considering all the curious bounces other oddities, it felt fitting that Washington defenseman John Erskine delivered the game-winning goal in a 6-4 victory Sunday for the Capitals against the visiting Atlanta Thrashers at Verizon Center.
Erskine ripped a drop pass from David Steckel into the top-left corner of the net from the left point at 13:11 of the final period. It was his second goal in four games – he beat New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist with a similar shot Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. He had seven goals in 336 career games before that.
"The last few games I've been getting lucky and getting some shots on net," Erskine said. "Tonight we created traffic in front and I don't think their goalie really saw the whole play. I think if we keep doing that we are going to get goals."
It was the first goal in a third period that was relatively uneventful compared to the crazy 40 minutes that preceded it. Steckel added an empty-netter to seal the victory.
The loss was the fifth in six contests for Atlanta. Washington won for the sixth time in seven games and hasn't lost in regulation since Oct. 28. The Capitals looked more like the high-flying team from the past two seasons Sunday – both in a good and a bad way.
"We talked between the second and third [periods] about how we don't want to win games 6-4 and we don't want this reputation," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We want to be able to shut teams down. Right now we're doing it for two periods and we're having little brain camps and it is costing us."
The Capitals dominated the first 20 minutes and chased Atlanta's starting goalie, Chris Mason, early in the second. But the Thrashers tied the game at four by midway through the middle period.
Michal Neuvirth has yielded few soft goals this season, but Andrew Ladd put one past the Washington netminder 72 seconds into what would prove to be a wild second period. Ladd chipped the puck into the left corner and chased it down before shooting from along the goal line to make it a 3-2 lead for the Capitals.
Washington temporarily went back in front by two when Matt Hendricks poked home the rebound of a Mike Green shot at 2:23, but Atlanta answered 44 seconds later. Bryan Little found the puck in the right circle after a harried sequence around the Washington net and he put a shot through a cluster of bodies.
"The second period we fought back, we showed our character and we did a lot of good things," Thrashers center Nik Antropov said. "Unfortunately, we came up short again."
Little helped the Thrashers level the score at 9:00 of the middle period. Alex Ovechkin missed a pass from Nicklas Backstrom at the left point with the Capitals on the power play. When he went to collect it in the neutral zone, Little and Ladd double-teamed him to force a turnover and a breakaway for Ladd.
Neuvirth stopped Ladd's attempt, but the puck went in the air and glanced off his helmet and into the net before he or a hard-charging Green could whisk it away from danger. Little touched the puck as he skated by Neuvirth and Green and was credited with his second goal of the game.
"It was a mental lapse completely by our whole team," Green said. "I think we were successful in the first period and got confident but we set ourselves back in the second. It wasn't our team – we have to play a full 60. We made it a very close game and we made it real tough on ourselves."
It was the second straight bad middle period for the Capitals, who conceded a lead in the second on Saturday night against the Buffalo Sabres. At one point late in this second period, the Capitals had another power play and Boudreau put his top four offensive weapons – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Alexander Semin – on the bench in favor of guys like Hendricks, Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera and Tomas Fleischmann.
"We weren't very good," Boudreau said of the second period. "We made mental mistakes and it was ugly. The good thing is they righted the ship."
Ovechkin put the Capitals on the board 90 seconds into the opening period with a quirky goal. Ovechkin's shot was deflected in front and was heading wide left, but when Mason stabbed at the puck with his stick he actually helped it into the net. It was Ovechkin's 10th goal of the season.
Green made it 2-0 at 9:43 near the end of a Washington power play. His shot from the right point hit Thrashers defenseman Brent Sopel on the way in. The Capitals' defense corps finished this game with two goals and six points.
"We lost their defensemen too many times and they're pretty good players back there. You just can't do that," Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay said. "There were some funny goals, but I much prefer it when we are on the good end of the funny."
Rich Peverley brought Atlanta within a goal at 13:14 with the help of another wacky bounce. Tobias Enstrom's blast from the top of the zone during a two-man advantage hit the glass behind Neuvirth, the top of the cage and off the goalie's back before trickling beyond the line. Peverley touched it after it came off the top of the goal and before it hit Neuvirth for his third of the season.
There was nothing fluky about Semin's tally to restore Washington’s two-goal advantage late in the first. Semin skated down the right wing and past both Thrashers defensemen to collect a perfect saucer pass from Ovechkin before backhanding it past Mason for his 13th goal of the season at 18:57.
Erskine also engaged Atlanta's Eric Boulton in a long fight that included several big blows by both combatants and would have collected a Gordie Howe Hat Trick but had an assist taken away with a scoring change on Washington's first goal.
He has matched his career-high in goals with two – and both have come since he joined several of his teammates in growing mustaches to support "Movember," which raises awareness for men's health.
"Yeah, the 'stache has been good luck," Erskine said. "I talked to the wife and I might be keeping it for a while."