With every victory, the red-hot Atlanta Thrashers make their horrendous start a more and more distant memory.
The Thrashers look for their seventh win in eight games Wednesday when they take on the Washington Capitals in a matchup of Southeast Division teams going in opposite directions.
Atlanta (10-10-0) reached the .500 mark with a 4-3 overtime victory over Tampa Bay on Monday night, no small accomplishment considering how it played to open the season. The Thrashers started 0-6, which led to the firing of coach Bob Hartley by general manager Don Waddell, who replaced Hartley behind the bench.
The team immediately showed signs of life, going 4-3 over the next seven games, and has found a groove since Nov. 3, when it defeated the Lightning 6-4 on the road to begin its 6-1 surge.
On Monday, the Thrashers victimized the Lightning for the second time during their hot streak, as Todd White scored on a power play in the extra period to lift Atlanta to 5-0 in overtime this season.
"We did a great job in the third period," Waddell said after his team snapped Tampa Bay's five-game win streak. "We only gave them four shots. We shut them down until they got the third goal, but this team never feels they are out of it."
Some of that confidence comes from the Thrashers' potent top line of White, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. Kovalchuk recorded his NHL-best 17th goal Monday to tie the game at 3 with 2:23 left in regulation, then assisted on White's overtime goal.
"We have been playing together eight games now," White said of his line. "I try to feed them. I feel more confident."
Over those eight games, Kovalchuk and Hossa have combined for 18 goals and 12 assists.
Johan Hedberg had 17 saves to win his third straight start for the Thrashers. He's 5-2-2 with a 2.84 goals-against average versus the Capitals and won both his starts against them last season, posting a 2.50 GAA.
Atlanta looks to keep rolling against a Capitals team that's possibly the NHL's worst. Washington (6-13-1) has lost four straight and eight of nine, and its 13 points are the fewest in the league.
The collapse is all the more stunning considering the Caps started the season 3-0 - their first win coming over the Thrashers on Oct. 5 - and were convinced that with star forward Alex Ovechkin and several offseason additions, were ready to return to the postseason after a four-season hiatus.
"Going into this season, with the guys we added, we had high expectations here. And to be seven games under .500 after starting 3-0 is a huge disappointment. Huge," goalie Olie Kolzig said after practice Tuesday.
"The last two years, you knew what we had as a team, and it was, 'Go out, work hard and see what happens. Things are going to get better. The grass is going to get a little greener.' And the grass has gotten greener," Kolzig said, then laughed a bit before continuing. "But it hasn't turned into wins."
If the Capitals lose in regulation Wednesday night, they'll be stuck with the franchise's lowest point total through 21 games since the 1981-82 season.
"We have to realize how desperate we are right now," forward Brooks Laich said. "We have to play every game like it's our last."
Lack of scoring has been one of Washington's biggest problems. Ovechkin has 13 goals, but he isn't getting much help. The Capitals are averaging 2.3 goals per game, 28th in the NHL, and are 1-10-1 when opponents score first.
One possible bright spot Monday for Washington was the return of wingers Chris Clark and Alexander Semin from lengthy injury absences. It was only the third time all season coach Glen Hanlon had his top six forwards available.
The Caps fell 2-1 in overtime to the Thrashers on Nov. 6, but prior to that had won four of five meetings.