CAPITALS (26-11-6) at THRASHERS (19-18-6)
Last 10 -- Washington 6-4-0; Atlanta 1-6-3
Season series -- This is the third of six meetings between the division rivals this season. The Capitals have taken the first two in regulation, each by one goal. They held on for a 5-4 win on Oct. 22 despite taking a three-goal lead into the third period. Washington did the same thing a week later, this time taking a 3-0 lead into the third period and holding on for a 4-3 win in a thriller. Mike Knuble's empty-net goal with 53 seconds left was the difference because Zach Bogosian scored in the final second.
Big story -- The only active Russian captains in the NHL will be leading their teams into this Saturday night clash. Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin are good friends and will be teammates on the Russian Olympic squad next month. In 32 career games against the Thrashers, Ovechkin has 25 goals and 27 assists for 52 points. It's the most points he's scored against any team in his career. In 44 career games against the Capitals, Kovalchuk also has 52 points -- 24 goals and 28 assists. You also may remember that during last year's All-Star Weekend in Montreal, Kovalchuk helped heal the rocky relationship between Ovechkin and fellow Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin.
Capitals -- After losing a season-high three straight games in regulation, the Caps have rebounded at home with back-to-back wins over Montreal and Ottawa. Michal Neuvirth made 24 saves in a 4-2 win over the Canadiens and Jose Theodore, who hadn't won since Dec. 15, made 26 saves in a 5-2 win over the Senators. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin had three-point nights in the win over Ottawa. Tomas Fleischmann has played the last two nights as the second line center between Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. The Capitals may have found something with Fleischmann, who could also play center on the Czech Olympic team next month. Fleischmann has won 18 of 24 faceoffs in the last two games and had a goal and two assists against the Habs on Tuesday.
"I had no idea," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said of Fleischmann's ability in the circle. "But he's got such quick hands, it makes sense that he would be good on faceoffs. (Assistant coach) Dean Evason has worked with him on that, but I think a lot of it is natural ability."
Thrashers -- The Thrashers got a regulation goal from Jim Slater 6:06 into the third period and Slava Kozlov and Bryan Little beat Chad Johnson in the shootout to down the Rangers 2-1 on Thursday night. Talk about a much-needed victory. The Thrashers were on a 0-6-3 streak and thankfully avoided their first 10-game losing streak since the franchise's inaugural season 10 years ago. Johan Hedberg stood tall against 29 of New York's 30 shots and only Marian Gaborik beat him in the shootout. Atlanta was coming off a seven-game road trip in which it went 0-5-2. The Thrashers are still second in the Southeast Division behind the Capitals, but they trail by 14 points.
"What I did today was put my red slippers on and click my heels three times and say, 'There's no place like home,' " Thrashers coach John Anderson said after Thursday's win.
Who's hot -- Backstrom scored two more goals Thursday night in the Capitals win, giving him 17 for the season, which puts him second on the team behind Ovechkin's 27. Backstrom is only five goals away from tying his career high of 22, which he scored in 82 games last season.
Injury report -- The Caps are finally healthy now that defenseman Brian Pothier returned Thursday night. Atlanta may still be without center Nik Antropov, who has missed the last two games with a hip injury, and defenseman Mark Popovic has missed 16 straight games with a foot injury. GM Don Waddell said goalie Kari Lehtonen is still a few weeks away from returning from his season-long back injury.
Stat pack -- The Capitals have now combined for 29 two-goal games this season. Thanks to the Caps crack media relations staff, we have learned that no other team in the League has more than 20 multiple-goal games this season. The Caps also have four players with 15 or more goals this season; no other team has more than two and seven teams don't even have a player with at least 15 goals. The Caps are also the only team with eight players in double-digits in goals. Yes, this is all why they lead the NHL with 154 goals.
Puck drop -- "The positive thing is the talks have continued," Waddell told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution when asked about the ongoing contract negotiations with Kovalchuk. "They haven't broken down. We talk almost daily. To me, that's all part of the process. If talks break down because one side puts their shoes too far in the sand then you know you're probably at an impasse. At this point, that hasn't happened. Both sides continue to talk and try to find away to make this deal work. Ilya still feels real good about the team. I've talked to him about him. Obviously we hit a slide here, but I think we proved the first 30 games that we are a pretty good team."