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For once, Caps, Thrashers go in similar directions

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- Virtually since the Atlanta Thrashers entered the NHL in 1999, it seems that their relationship to the Washington Capitals have been opposite of one another.

When the Capitals have been on top, winning Southeast titles in 2000, 2001, 2008 and 2009, the Thrashers ranked among the league's worst. When the Thrashers were near the top of the division in 2006 and 2007 -- the year of Atlanta's only title -- Washington was rebuilding and the Capitals dwelled in the bottom of the standings.

Perhaps 2009-10 is the season when the two teams near something approaching equal footing. Excepting a bizarre 88-second sequence in Thursday's 5-4 Capitals' victory at Philips Arena in which Atlanta coach John Anderson admitted his team got rattled by a fluky 175-foot goal, the two division-leading teams played fairly equally.

"They are improved," Washington assistant captain Mike Knuble said of Atlanta, which has nine points in seven games, three behind Washington, which has played two more games. "It starts with their defense out. They've got some veteran guys back there now and [Pavel] Kubina's a big add for them.

"It's a big, big body down there and their younger kid [Zach] Bogosian ... he plays with a lot of confidence. He likes to carry the puck up. They've added forwards, too. They're playing well. They're a team that's going to win a lot of games this year."

The most interesting subtext to the divisional rivalry is the one between Russian stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin. They have combined for three of the last five goal-scoring titles and own five of the last 11 50-goal seasons.

And playing against each other seems to bring out the best in the two left wings. Ovechkin, though he went without a point for only the second time this season on Thursday, has 23 goals and 26 assists in 31 career games against Atlanta, which is 0.29 points per game higher than his career production pace. Kovalchuk has 24 goals and 28 assists in 43 career games against the Capitals, which is 0.19 points per game higher than his career production.

Before Thursday's game, Kovalchuk told a local radio station that he doesn't think about who he's playing against, but chest-bumping between the two that day at the morning skate would indicate otherwise.

Exhausted after his two-goal performance, Kovalchuk had difficulty accepting the idea that his team did not earn any points for such a draining effort. But he does seem convinced that the Thrashers' 4-2-1 start is no fluke.

"Oh, yeah, we are going to battle them all year long in our division," he said. "I think we start good. We got a couple of chances. They scored first goal, but we came back right away. That second period was a couple of bad bounces, but that's the game. That's hockey."

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau seemed unsure of how things will shake out when asked if Atlanta might be chasing his team all season long.

"I hope so," he said. "I don't get the sense, but I hope so. I hope everybody chases us."

"Oh, yeah, we are going to battle them (the Capitals) all year long in our division. I think we start good. We got a couple of chances. They scored first goal, but we came back right away. That second period was a couple of bad bounces, but that's the game. That's hockey."
-- Ilya Kovalchuk

Another facet to the rivalry is the friendship between the coaches. Anderson and Boudreau jointly ran a charity golf tournament this summer outside of Toronto. That's a far cry from the night before Thanksgiving in 2006 when Glen Hanlon challenged Bob Hartley to a fight in a game with 176 penalty minutes. Three players were suspended for a total of five games.

Some players remain on both teams from that night, but a lot of new faces are playing key roles. For example, both teams have rookie goalies. Semyon Varlamov, who has the benefit of seven playoff victories from last season, has never lost a regular-season game in regulation (8-0-1) and Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec, pulled for the first time this season after allowing five goals on 14 shots on Thursday, is off to a 3-2-1 start.

"I mean, they're explosive," Boudreau said of the Thrashers. "I think Pavelec had an unfortunate day after coming off two or three great games in a row and young goalies do that. I mean, our guy's the same way. He can play great and the inconsistency of a young goalie is what happens."

In addition to Kovalchuk, that explosive scoring power to which Boudreau alluded comes in part from new additions Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov, who joined Kovalchuk on a line Thursday.

Afinogenov has five points and Antropov, Atlanta's big free-agent signing, also has five.

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