WASHINGTON - Ondrej Pavelec's season began with a frightening incident against the Washington Capitals, but his return and subsequent spectacular play has been one of the best stories of the 2009-10 NHL season.
Of all the wonderful performances Pavelec has authored, his work Saturday night against those same Capitals may have been his best. Pavelec turned aside 45 of 46 shots, including 15 by Washington's elite power play, to lead his Atlanta Thrashers to a 3-1 victory at Verizon Center.
Washington captain Alex Ovechkin snapped a goalless drought that had tied the longest of career, but it was all the offense the Capitals could muster in a second straight loss. The Thrashers have won seven of eight, including two convincing victories against the League-leading Capitals by a combined 8-1 margin.
"It's a huge win for us," Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay said. "Every game is little steps and this is just another step, but it is a step against one of the best teams in hockey. You have to like that and you have to enjoy that."
Pavelec collapsed less than three minutes into Atlanta's season-opening 4-2 victory against Washington at Philips Arena and was taken to the hospital for what was eventually deemed a fainting spell. He sustained a concussion and missed three weeks, but has been one of the NHL's top goalies since his return.
His record is now 9-5-2, but Pavelec's goals against average (1.70) and save percentage (.948) are both second in the League behind Boston's Tim Thomas. Pavelec has played every minute of this current stretch of success and has yielded nine goals in the eight games.
"It was a scary [night] definitely, but I have put that behind me," Pavelec said of his opening-night collapse. "I don't have any problems. I do everything the way I did before and I put it behind me. I just keep looking forward and trying to help this team get the points."
Added captain Andrew Ladd: "He's been the difference for us the past month. He's been exceptional every game. He's made huge saves when we need it just like tonight. He's been great for us."
A developing theme in this NHL campaign is the improvement of the Southeast Division, specifically by Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay. All three teams are in the top nine of the conference standings after finishing 10th, 11th and 12th a season ago.
The Capitals, champions of the Southeast the past three seasons, have had little trouble with the Hurricanes and Lightning in winning all five matchups, but the Thrashers have been another matter. Atlanta is now 3-1-1 against Washington with the final matchup of the season series set for Jan. 26 at Philips Arena.
"We're rolling pretty good here lately," Ladd said. "Obviously [with the Capitals] being at the top of the League we can see where we're at and they always seem to bring out the best in us."
The Capitals had plenty of opportunities against Pavelec and the Thrashers but failed to convert. Washington had five power plays - only the second time in 14 games it has had that many - but the League's second-best team with the man advantage could not best the club that was 23rd on the penalty kill when the day began.
"It looked like we didn't get very many second shots," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You can have 100 perimeter shots and it looks good on the [scoreboard] but if they're not taking penalties cross-checking you in the back then you're not fighting to get through there.
"I think it is a lack of commitment to paying the price to score. We're all wanting to score, but we're staying on the perimeter and hoping to get the puck rather than being the guy that's going to the puck."
After Semyon Varlamov turned aside Atlanta's first 17 shots, the Thrashers struck twice in 92 seconds in a span of three attempts to forge a lead. Rich Peverley opened the scoring when he tipped a point shot from Dustin Byfuglien past Varlamov at 7:57 of the second period for his seventh goal of the season. It was Peverley's fourth goal in five games and the 12th time in the past 14 games that Atlanta has scored first.
Rookie Alexander Burmistrov made it a two-goal advantage with an incredible tally at 9:29. Burmistrov had the puck along the goal line to the left of Varlamov but snapped a shot under the crossbar from the tight angle for his fourth goal of the campaign. Burmistrov's last goal came Nov. 19 against the Capitals and was also a highlight-reel effort.
"He's a kid that has tremendous confidence," Ramsay said. "He's got great commitment to the game but he's got skill and he's a talent. Sometimes he relies on that talent and will stickhandle in traffic, but that goal was really special."
Ovechkin had gone nine games without a goal, dating back to the last time the teams met at Verizon Center on Nov. 14. He did have 8 assists during his drought.
Boudreau put Alexander Semin on the top line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom midway through the second period after Washington fell behind -- and it paid off. The trio put together a power play-esque shift of 1:57 at even strength - almost entirely in Atlanta's zone - before Semin found Ovechkin for a one-timer with 48.2 seconds left in the second.
The Thrashers had one of their two power plays early in the third period after David Steckel was called for kneeing Tobias Enstrom and didn't need long to capitalize to regain the two-goal advantage. Ladd converted a one-timer from Peverley at 2:27 - just eight seconds into the power play.
Jim Slater challenged Steckel to a fight immediately after the hit and Boudreau was upset there wasn't an instigator infraction levied against Slater.
"It would have been nice to have a few more power plays, but [Assistant coach John Torchetti] called the low play there and it worked," Ramsay said. "It is great to see when you give the group an idea and they take it and make it work. It doesn't work all the time, but it happened tonight and we took advantage of it."
Added Boudreau: "It was a deflating goal. I think we lost our focus."