CAPITALS (4-2-2) at THRASHERS (4-1-1)
Season series -- It's the first of six meetings between the Southeast Division rivals. Last season, the Capitals took four of six games from Atlanta and earned a 4-2 victory in the final showdown on April 7. Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves for the win.
Big story -- Two of the three best Russian players on the planet go head-to-head in this one, as Washington's Alex Ovechkin faces Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk. Both are off to terrific starts, as Ovechkin has 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in eight games, while Kovalchuk is 7-1-8 in six contests. Kovalchuk is in the final year of his contract with the Thrashers and is set to hit the open market on July 1, 2010.
Team Scope :
Capitals -- As expected, Washington is off to a solid start and is gunning for its third straight win. The Caps made it two in a row on Saturday with a 3-2 shootout victory against the Nashville Predators. Ovechkin had both goals in regulation before recording the lone tally in the shootout.
But Ovechkin wasn't the only hero on Saturday. Semyon Varlamov, who seized the No. 1 goalie job last postseason, stopped the final 12 shots he faced and then denied all three of Nashville's chances in the shootout.
"We're happy for him," Caps forward Mike Knuble said. "He's come in and played really well. He held us in there, especially in that first period. We were a little bit sloppy on the [first] power play, especially to give up those two breakaways. He made the saves he had to make and kept us in the game. He is playing with a lot more confidence as a result."
Thrashers -- Not many expected Atlanta to get off to such as fast start, especially with an early five-game trip. But the Thrashers went 3-1-1, including a 2-1 shootout loss at Montreal on Tuesday thanks to the heroics of rookie goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
"He played really, really well, and I thought their goalie played really well, too," Thrashers coach John Anderson said of Tuesday's goalie duel between Pavelec and Montreal's Jaroslav Halak. "He made some big saves for them, too, and you don't get goaltending battles like this very often and it was great. I was very, very happy with it and I wish we would have won at the end, but that's the way it goes."
Who's hot -- Besides Ovechkin, who leads the League in goals and has 61 shots in eight games, Nicklas Backstrom (2 goals, 9 assists) and Alexander Semin (6 goals, 4 assists) are also averaging more than a point per game. For the Thrashers, forward Rich Peverley, who recently signed a new two-year deal with the club, has 4 goals and 4 assists in six games. Half of his tallies are game-winners. Pavelec has won three of his five starts and has a 2.37 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
Injury report -- Capitals left wing Tomas Fleischmann could return to practice this week after a long layoff from a blood clot that was discovered last spring. Defenseman John Erskine is questionable due to a bruised hand, while goalie Jose Theodore has been battling back spasms. Center Boyd Gordon also has back issues and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (lower body) is questionable.
Stat pack -- Washington is delighted with the production center Brendan Morrison has provided thus far. The offseason acquisition is skating as a top-six forward and has 3 goals and 4 assists in eight games. … Known more for his goal-scoring ability, Knuble, another offseason pickup, already has five assists thanks to Ovechkin's early-season production.
Thrashers center Todd White has only one goal so far, but he's been highly effective in the faceoff circle. On Tuesday night in Montreal, White won 12 of 14 draws. Evander Kane, the fourth selection in the 2009 Entry Draft, blocked six shots in the loss.
Puck drop -- This showdown should bring out the best in both Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, who may well be skating on the same line for Team Russia at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
-- Brian Compton, NHL.com