Capitals-Thrashers: Simeon Varlamov Cools Down The Competition

Jennifer JohnsonAnalyst IApril 8, 2009

RALEIGH, NC - SEPTEMBER 24:  Goaltender Simeon Varlamov #40 of the Washington Capitals guards the net during the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center on September 24, 2008 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

In two previous meetings between the Southeast Conference winning Washington Capitals and the Atlanta Thrashers, the games were hardly indicative of the talent that permeates on the DC squad.

Both teams were paired up for the thrid time last night at Phillips Arena.

The Thrashers were certainly the more aggressive team in their earlier 7-4 and 5-1 victories in this building.

So to expect anything less than another tough road test from the cagey youngsters would be a mistake on the playoff-bound Capitals' part.

Luckily for the fans of the good guys in red, the results of this final challenge went in the Capitals' favor. Rookie netminder Simeon Varlamov turned in a dominating performance in just his fifth NHL start.

He stopped 29 of 31 shots faced, and improved to 4-0-1 on the season. Using his glove hand like a veteran, Varlamov corralled the puck in the waning moments of a late Atlanta power play to secure the 4-2 win.

With just two games left to go in the regular season the Capitals need one more point,  to secure the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington (49-23-8) is four points ahead of New Jersey (49-27-4, 102) in the standings.

Leading goal scorer Alexander Ovechkin (55) registered two assists, but had a goal taken away when it was later revealed his fellow Russian forward, Sergei Federov, had actually scooted the bouncing biscuit past Thrashers' goalie Ondrej Pavelec at the 9:18 mark of the third period.

"The Great Eight" trails Pittsburgh's Evegeni Malkin in the race for this year's scoring title. Malkin also notched two assists in his team's 6-4 win at Tampa Bay. He retains a two point cushion over Ovechkin (110-108). But as Capitals fans know, Ovie is more concerned with getting that second spot behind Boston locked up.

He was happy with the "ugly" win, but was disappointed in the overall performance of the revamped first line. Coach Bruce Boudreau promoted Sergei Federov to the top line, shifting Nicklas Backstrom down to the second line. Here are some of Ovechkin's thoughts on how his linemates and himself finished.

"There were no emotions, no good crowd, you know?" Ovechkin said. "It was hard to play hockey here. It's a hard situation for Atlanta right now. It's only two games in the season and they go on vacation. We're in the playoffs. Our minds are in the playoffs."

For the second straight year, Ovechkin and Co. are headed to the postseason on a high note. The Capitals have amassed 106 points this season, and won on the last day of the regular season last year to finish with 94 points. That gives the Caps an average of 100 points in Boudreau's short NHL coaching career.

Plucked from the the ranks of the AHL Hershey Bears' organization, Boudreau has answered the prayers of many in the DC area since his hiring back on November 22, 2007. Owner Ted Leonsis asked us all to be patient, as he rebuilt the Capitals' roster into the juggernaut it is today. He can claim good riddance to all those haters in the media that dismissed Washington as a "lightweight" in a mid-range market.

Active players like Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Tomas Fleischmann, and Jeff Schultz all played for Boudreau in Hershey. And with the emergence of defenseman Karl Alzner, the blue line looks to have a perennial All-Star in the making to complement stud Mike Green for a number of years to come.

Boudreau was encouraged by Simeon Varlamov's play, despite the ho-hum type of hockey atmosphere. "Varly played really really good," said Boudreau. "We left him out to dry a few times."

Boudreau's strength is that he does not play favorites. Case in point, the tinkering of the top line.

The second line in tonight's game performed much better than the All-Russian top line. Winger Tomas Fleischmann scored for the second time in as many games, netting the game's first tally at 8:20 in the first period.

He carried the puck in below the goal line, then passed back through the crease between Ondrej Pavelec (22 saves) and the goal post. Thrashers center Marty Reasoner fumbled the puck, and watched it sail past his defenseless goalie. The Capitals' took the 1-0 lead.

Rich Peverley evened the score 68 seconds later, thanks to a breakdown defensively in the Washington zone by Milan Jurcina. But goals by Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin (on a nice give-and-go from Fleischmann) gave the Capitals a 3-1 advantage at the first intermission.

And not much in the way of good, clean action occurred after the game's first twenty minutes. Reasoner made up for his first period miscue, and redirected a shot that slid between Varlamov's pads to cut the Caps lead to 3-2.

Then Varlamov became a stone wall. He stopped the Thrasher's final eighteen shots to help the Capitals try and fend off the Devils from wrestling the No. 2 seed in the East from their grasp.


Capitals Notes

Defenseman Donald Brashear accompanied the team on their final road trip, but missed his 12th consecutive game with a sprained knee.

The Capitals' last two games are against divisional opponents. (Tampa Bay on Thursday and Florida on Saturday)