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Capitals-Thrashers Preview @NHL

A division title and the best regular season in franchise history didn't help the Atlanta Thrashers when it counted most. The loss of several key players could make even repeating that success difficult.

The Thrashers enter the season hoping to rebound from a very disappointing playoff performance, starting with a home game against the Southeast Division rival Washington Capitals on Friday night.

Atlanta (43-28-11) improved its point total for the fourth straight season in 2006-07, setting franchise records with 97 points and 43 wins en route to the first division title in team history.

As the third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Thrashers drew the New York Rangers in the first round, a team with nearly an identical record. The Rangers, however, proved to be much stronger, outscoring the Thrashers 17-6 in an easy four-game sweep.

Most disappointing for Atlanta was the play of its best players - forwards Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov, and goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

Kovalchuk had one goal in the series while Hossa and Kozlov failed to score. Lehtonen was 0-2 with an ugly .849 save percentage, forcing coach Bob Hartley to start backup Johan Hedberg twice.

Asked what he gained from the playoff experience, Lehtonen said, "Not much. I just want to forget them."

Although their top players have returned, the Thrashers will have a different supporting cast this season. Gone from last year's team are forwards Scott Mellanby, Keith Tkachuk, Eric Belanger and Jon Sim, as well as defensemen Greg de Vries, Andy Sutton and Shane Hnidy.

The biggest loss may have come with the retirement of Mellanby, who was team captain and the Thrashers' fourth-leading scorer with 36 points. De Vries' departure also hurts as he led all of Atlanta's defensemen with 24 points last season.

The Thrashers, though, still have two of the league's top forwards in Kovalchuk and Hossa despite their poor playoff performances.

Kovalchuk reached the 40-goal mark for the third straight season, though he finished with 10 fewer than his career-high 52 in 2005-06 while his point total slipped from 98 to 76. He is only the 10th player in league history - and the first since Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr in 1996 - to score 200 goals before his 24th birthday.

Hartley named Kovalchuk one of four assistant captains when he announced center Bobby Holik as team captain on Tuesday.

"Kovy is ready for this and I think it's a great challenge for him," Hartley said. "I think it's going to help him. I think it's a sign we're giving him that hey, you're a huge part of this hockey club, both on the ice and off the ice."

Hossa was tied for sixth in the league in scoring last season, totaling a career-high 100 points on 43 goals and 57 assists. He remains one of the league's best two-way forwards.

This contest also is the season opener for Washington (28-40-14), which had one of the league's worst records and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

Despite their recent lack of success, the Capitals say they expect to make the playoffs this year. In an effort to provide some support for star winger Alexander Ovechkin, Washington signed free-agent forwards Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov and defenseman Tom Poti.

This year also marks the much-anticipated NHL debut of forward Nicklas Backstrom, the 2006 No. 4 overall draft pick who spent last season playing in Sweden.

Ovechkin put together another stellar season with 46 goals and 92 points, second-year left wing Alexander Semin added 38 goals and Chris Clark had 30. With the addition of Nylander (26 goals) and Kozlov (25 goals), the Capitals are one of only three teams to boast five 25-goal scorers from last season.

"We have more experience," Ovechkin said. "We're not a group of guys who just come in here and play for having fun."

One area of concern for Washington is in net where 37-year-old Olaf Kolzig returns for his 13th full season. Kolzig was limited to 54 games last season due to knee problems and the team was 6-16-8 without him.

The Thrashers went 5-1-2 against the Capitals last season, and are 12-2-4 with one tie in the last 19 meetings.

Kovalchuk has 11 goals and 14 assists in 19 career games versus Washington.

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