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Early-season visit by Caps has Atlanta buzzing

by Mike G. Morreale
Expect some fireworks Thursday night at Philips Arena when the defending Southeast Division champions Washington Capitals take on the improved Atlanta Thrashers for the first time this season.

The match marks the first of two meetings between these rivals in a span of eight days. The clubs return to Atlanta on Oct. 29 for the second of six encounters this season.

There's plenty at stake despite the fact neither team has yet to play its 10th game of the season. Washington (4-2-2) holds a one-point edge against the Thrashers (4-1-1) in the Southeast Division and Alex Ovechkin (9 goals, 16 points) holds a slim two-goal advantage against Ilya Kovalchuk (7 goals, 8 points), Ovechkin's countryman and the Thrashers' leading scorer.

"I think whenever you see the young stars play against one another it certainly adds an element to the game whether it's Kovalchuk in Atlanta or Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin coming in with Pittsburgh," Capitals owner, president and alternate governor Dick Patrick told "It's always fun to see the superstars because they contribute so much to their teams."

The Capitals won the season series in 2008-09, 4-2-0, with both teams scoring 24 goals -- Ovechkin connected for 3 and Kovalchuk had 2.

Despite the fact Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec went 0-2-0 with a 4.62 goals-against average and .847 save percentage against the Caps last season, expect him to be in net Thursday. Pavelec has been one of the League's best goalies thus far, posting a 3-1-1 mark with a 2.37 GAA and a .929 save percentage in five appearances this season. The Thrashers, incidentally, have been out-shot in every game they've played.

Look for the Caps to start goalie Semyon Varlamov, even though Jose Theodore is recovering nicely from back spasms suffered last week. The same can't be said for Washington forward Alexander Semin (6 goals, 10 points) who is "touch and go" with what coach Bruce Boudreau called an "illness."

As a result, Boudreau said the team will likely call up two forwards with Semin's illness and Boyd Gordon's (back) status in doubt. Both players, however, made the trip to Atlanta.

Ovechkin expects a tough game against the new-look Thrashers, who have matched their quickest start in franchise history.

"Atlanta is a good team right now and they look to be in our spot (first place in the Southeast)," he said. "I certainly don't hope they are team to beat in division. We're going there to take two points."

Atlanta coach John Anderson is just grateful his team will have some semblance of a regular-season schedule this week. Following a four-day layoff after their season-opening 6-3 victory against Tampa Bay, the Thrashers were then given a five-day layoff between a 4-2 loss in Ottawa Oct. 10 and 4-2 victory against New Jersey on Oct. 16.

"I think (the schedule) has been a challenge for us," Anderson said. "The Ottawa game, we had a horrible first period. We were off for four days (following our season opener), played, and then we had another five days off and we were horrible in the New Jersey game. One we rallied to get back into (New Jersey); the other one we didn't. I think it's good in the sense you can practice and get some of your systems down a little better. You don't do it at NHL game speed, but you get better and better the more you play. I didn't like the way it started, but, again, I'm sure everybody has these things on their schedule."

Anderson isn't too overly concerned with the fact Kovalchuk and Rich Peverley (4 goals, 8 points) are the only two players scoring regularly through the opening six games.
"Atlanta is a good team right now and they look to be in our spot (first place in the Southeast). I certainly don't hope they are team to beat in division. We're going there to take two points." - Alex Ovechkin
"Up until last night, our power play was No. 1 in the League, mostly due to Kovy," Anderson said. "But, you know, it's hard to exactly point fingers after five or six games. You have to understand too, our games have been few and far between -- it's hard to get on a roll for these guys. As we play a few more games, I think it'll all sort itself out and make the whole scenario a lot clearer on which direction we should go if they're not scoring."

After surrendering 15 goals in its first four games, Washington has allowed only eight in the past four matches. Washington defenseman Brian Pothier knows the club will need to continue that defense-first approach against the Thrashers.

"Both teams have several players capable of opening it up," Pothier said. "Kovy is scoring threat every time he's on the ice and we have a handful of guys that can do the same. It seems like every time we get together; it's mayhem. But Atlanta made some good off-season acquisitions and they are playing well and are re-energized. Coach Anderson keeps them encouraged and honest and they obviously have a lot of youth and skill."

Contact Mike Morreale at

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