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Capitals start quest for redemption in Atlanta

by John Kreiser

CAPITALS (0-0-0) at THRASHERS (0-0-0)


Season series -- The Southeast Division rivals are playing the first of their six games this season. The Caps swept all six meetings last season, outscoring Atlanta 29-13 in the process, and has won eight in a row overall against the Thrashers. It's the third time in the last four seasons the Caps have opened their season in Atlanta.

Big story -- It's Game 1 of the Capitals' quest for redemption. After winning the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular-season team, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs. The Thrashers begin their first full season without Ilya Kovalchuk, but with a new GM (Rick Dudley), coach (Craig Ramsay) and a host of new players -- including a handful from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks -- as they try to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.

Team Scope:

Capitals -- The Caps have almost everyone back from the team that ripped through the NHL during the regular season but couldn't get past the first round of the playoffs. That means Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the League's only pair of 100-point scorers, will lead the NHL's best offense, while the Caps work to improve their defense and penalty-killing.

"We came up with this plan years ago, and fortunately ownership stood by it," general manager George McPhee said. "We're starting Friday night with 11 of our own first-round picks in the lineup. The league average is four. The closest team to us has seven."

Thrashers -- It's a new era in Atlanta, where Ramsay, 59, is a full-time coach for the first time in his career and Dudley brought in playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien along with three other Blackhawks. Ramsay is switching Byfuglien back to defense, his original position and an area where the Thrashers have never been strong.

The Thrashers also saw their third consecutive first-rounder make the team: Alex Burmistrov signed an entry-level contract this week.

"I think there is a big upside here," Byfuglien said of the youthful Thrashers. "We've got a lot of young, hard-working players and some veterans who know how to win. I see a lot of good things. I think it's going to be exciting."

Who's hot -- The Caps went 5-1-0 in the preseason despite giving their regulars plenty of rest. Alex Ovechkin didn't score but had 5 assists in three games. Nicklas Backstrom and newcomer Matt Hendricks were tops with 3 goals. … No one on the Thrashers had more than two of Atlanta's 10 preseason goals -- a big reason the team went 0-5-1.

Injury report -- Washington goaltender Semyon Varlamov will start the season on the injured list with what he says is a groin injury. Michal Neuvirth, who led AHL Hershey to back-to-back Calder Cups, will start; journeyman Dany Sabourin will be the backup. … Atlanta put forward Jim Slater (wrist) on the non-roster injured list.

Stat pack -- The Capitals' 23-man roster includes 11 of their own first-round picks, from Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon (2002) to Marcus Johansson (2009). … Neuvirth is 3-0-0 in his career against the Thrashers with a 2.01 goals-against average.

Puck drop -- Caps coach Bruce Boudreau not taking anything for granted despite his team's success against the Thrashers.

"Any team that didn't make the playoffs the year before is always a tough team to play against early, because they're so full of energy because they want to turn things around," he told the team's website. "They're going to be a tough opponent [Friday] night."

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