ATLANTA - After Jeff Schultz scored from 85 feet out, the rest seemed almost easy for the Washington Capitals.
At least until the last minute.
Schultz's improbable shot was the first of three second-period goals in 88 seconds, and the Capitals held on to beat the Atlanta Thrashers 5-4 on Thursday night for their third straight win.
The game was tied 2-2 in the second period before Schultz, Matt Bradley and Chris Clark scored the three quick goals.
Semyon Varlamov stopped 22 shots but gave up two goals in the third period before shutting down the Thrashers' comeback.
"It was kind of a flukey game," said Washington's Mike Knuble, who called the Capitals' play late in the game "inexcusable."
"You can't be taking penalties with a two-goal lead," Knuble said.
Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec was benched after allowing the three straight goals that gave Washington a 5-2 lead.
Varlamov was credited with an assist on Schultz's goal as the Capitals were attempting to clear the puck from about 85 feet away. The puck appeared to deflect off Pavelec's stick and into the net, but he said he was beaten by a chip in the ice.
"It hit the ice and changed directions, then went over my head," Pavelec said. "It just happens sometimes, and it happened at a bad time."
Pavelec wouldn't say if he was unnerved by the strange goal. The back-to-back goals by Bradley and Clark in 14 seconds convinced Atlanta coach John Anderson a change was needed.
"It was a mercy pull," Anderson said. "Ondrej was rattled. The whole team was rattled."
Ilya Kovalchuk had two goals for Atlanta, including one on a power play with 38.5 seconds remaining in the game.
Eric Fehr and Alexandre Giroux had first-period goals for the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 16 points and nine goals, was held without a point for only the second time in nine games.
Ovechkin was called for a tripping penalty with 30 seconds remaining, but the Thrashers couldn't score on the final power play.
"We made it hard on ourselves," Knuble said. "When you score five goals in a game, it should be an automatic win."
Varlamov improved to 4-0 for the Southeast Division-leading Capitals, who began the night only one point ahead of Atlanta.
"It wasn't a textbook game, but I think both teams were very sloppy," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Both teams got some pretty soft goals. It wasn't a very well-played hockey game."
Capitals goalie Jose Theodore missed his second straight game after leaving the Oct. 15 game against San Jose because of back spasms.
Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov scored for Atlanta in the first period. Zach Bogosian added a short-handed goal in the third period.
Schultz had an assist on Bradley's put-back, and Clark capped the run of three goals by scoring on a rebound of Mike Green's shot.
Pavelec's strong play in the net helped the Thrashers match their best record (4-1-1) after six games in franchise history. Pavelec, who opened the season as the Thrashers' starter as Kari Lehtonen recovers from back surgery, had a 2.37 goals-against average before the second-period meltdown.
Pavelec stopped nine of 14 shots.
Johan Hedberg relieved Pavelec 11:48 into the period and stopped 14 shots.
NOTES: An officials' review disallowed a first-period goal by Knuble. The TV replay showed Knuble kicked the puck past Pavelec with his right leg 7:16 into the opening period with the Capitals leading 2-1. ... Kovalchuk has nine goals to match Ovechkin for the NHL lead. ... Schultz and Atlanta's Nik Antropov had two assists.