Thursday was Atlanta's first game without Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers' captain and one of the NHL's leading goal scorers (9 goals in 9 games) who will miss a month with a broken foot.
Without Kovachuk, Atlanta played listlessly and was down by three goals less than 25 minutes into the game. The performance was not lost on Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who is a close friend of Atlanta coach John Anderson. The two men ate lunch on Thursday after their respective morning skates.
"At the start of the game they did," look flat, Boudreau said. "They looked almost -- I was going to tell John this -- that they were feeling sorry for themselves because 'Kovy' wasn't in the lineup. Once they start skating and playing their game, they're a [heck] of a team. I thought they came out of the gate slower than I anticipated."
The game took a big turn later in the second. Alex Ovechkin's shot with 14:11 remaining in the period was Washington's last of the second. The Capitals did not take another until 5:32 into the third. By then, Thrashers defenseman Zach Bogosian had scored his first of two goals at 1:23 of the third, ripping home a slap shot on the power play, and Atlanta had stolen momentum.
They outshot Washington 20-10 in the final period and outscored them 3-1, with the Capitals' lone goal -- the game-winner -- coming on an empty-netter from Mike Knuble. Bogosian scored again at 19:59.
"Well, I thought with about seven minutes to go in the second period we thought this was going to be easy and we stopped skating and we stopped playing," Boudreau said. "And their crowd was out of it, but I knew once they got one goal -- just like the last time [a 5-4 Washington victory on Oct. 22], they'd be flying. And the way I always described the thing, it's like a faucet. You can't turn it off whenever you want. We had a hard time getting going after that."
Atlanta's Rich Peverley, who centered what proved to be the Thrashers' top line, as he was paired with wingers Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov, said he did not think the team suffered from a hangover without Kovalchuk.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think we managed to create a lot more chances but the goalie stood on his head. We have to manage the game better. If it's zero-zero at the end of the first, it's better than down two goals."
While Atlanta (4-4-1) has lost three straight home games in regulation, Anderson was trying to put those in the perspective of the competition. Two of those came to Washington, winners of six in a row and currently tied for third in the NHL in points, and San Jose, which has one less point than the Capitals.
"The teams that we lost against are no slouches," he said. "They're good hockey teams. There were times last year where we didn't compete, but this year we're getting closer and with a little bit of patience and a little bit of luck here and there ... and our games have a different outcome."
Difficult opponents will remain the case as Atlanta plays its next two on the road. They travel to Ottawa, sixth in the Eastern Conference, Saturday and Tuesday play in Montreal, which is seventh in the East.
Meanwhile, the Capitals are starting to rise to the cream of the NHL's crop and they're doing so even as their coach has been disgusted by their play. Boudreau said he had to bite his tongue after his team almost squandered its 3-0 lead.
"I said something [to the team after the game] but I'll save what I'm going to say 'til [Friday] morning," he said Thursday night. "I don't like coming in and ranting and raving after a game, especially one that you've won. I'd rather sleep on it and say something intelligent rather than emotional."
So what does it say about the defending Southeast champions that they have earned so many points in the standings and still infuriate their coach with inconsistent play?
"I hope we're capable of being able to finish teams off when we got the opportunity and that killer instinct and we haven't had that killer instinct and we let teams right back into the game," Boudreau said. "... I know John's in there telling them 'You got these guys in the third period, just get them in the first two.' Giving them confidence, and that's not what we want or need."
But points they do want and need and points they're getting while would-be challengers like Atlanta come up empty.