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Caps chase 13th straight against Kovy-less Thrashers

by Brian Hunter
THRASHERS (24-23-8) at CAPITALS (39-12-6)

Last 10: Atlanta 4-4-2; Washington 10-0-0

Season Series:
Fourth of six meetings this season between the Southeast Division rivals. The three previous matchups all took place at Philips Arena, where the Capitals made themselves right at home on their opponent's home ice. They took a pair of one-goal wins a week apart, 5-4 on Oct. 22 and 4-3 on Oct. 29, then routed the Thrashers 8-1 on Jan. 9. Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble each scored twice in that game.

Big Story: While 13 isn't generally thought of as a lucky number, it could be for the Capitals tonight. They will try to extend their franchise-record winning streak, which stands at a dozen after they pulled off a 6-5 come-from-behind thriller against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. The Thrashers had the day off, but they also made news that rocked the League, trading superstar Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils. It will be interesting to see how the team responds in the aftermath of that mega-deal.

Team Scope:

Only three points separate Atlanta from eighth in the Eastern Conference, with four of the final five games before the Olympic break being played on the road. The Thrashers have lost their last two games, falling 2-1 to the Lightning on Tuesday in Kovalchuk's final game with the team.

Coming back in exchange for Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela are forward Niclas Bergfors, who has eight power-play goals and 13 total as a rookie and defenseman Johnny Oduya. The Thrashers also get prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft.

"This doesn't set us back at all," GM Don Waddell said in a conference call following the trade. "I think we're moving forward. We picked up some nice pieces, some nice assets. This gives us a nice bank of young players we can continue to build with. It's one of those moves you don't look forward to making, but something we were forced to do."

Capitals: There appears to be no keeping Washington down at this point. Even after the Rangers put on an all-out offensive blitz, scoring four power-play goals in the first 39 minutes Thursday night for a 5-3 lead, the Capitals had an answer. Alex Ovechkin scored late in the second and power-play goals by Tom Poti and Nicklas Backstrom early in the third keyed them to a 12th straight win.

"We're pretty confident. There is a good atmosphere in the locker room," Ovechkin said. "This team is playing good right now and we feel good about ourselves. If I don't play well, a different guy steps up. We play for each other."

Who's Hot: Todd White has a three-game points streak for Atlanta, recording a goal and two assists. … Backstrom finished with his second five-point game of the season against New York and has three goals and 10 assists during a six-game points streak for Washington. Ovechkin, who recorded his 500th career point Thursday, has points in 15 of his last 16 games, putting up 12 goals and 18 assists over that span. Knuble has 13 goals in his last 15 games.

Injury Report:
Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen, who hasn't played all season due to back problems and surgery, is nearing his return from a conditioning assignment. Defenseman Christoph Schubert is out with a knee injury. … Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov has been sidelined with a groin injury.

Stat Pack: Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Peter Stastny, Mike Bossy, Dale Hawerchuk, Bryan Trottier, Denis Savard and Jari Kurri as the only players in NHL history to record 500 points in their first five seasons. … Bergfors is fifth in rookie scoring this season with 27 points. His eight power-play goals tie him with John Tavares of the Islanders for the rookie lead.
Puck Drop:
While trading Kovalchuk hardly furthers Atlanta's efforts to make the playoffs this season, Waddell felt it was necessary after he rejected a 12-year contract offer worth upwards of $100 million.

"This has been a very tough day for all of us here," Waddell said. "Ilya's been a big part of our organization for eight years. He's done a tremendous job for us on and off the ice. When you have to trade this type of player, it's not easy and there are a lot of emotions with it, but we came to the conclusion we weren't going to get him signed and he was too big an asset to let walk away."

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