ATLANTA It was over almost before it started. And it wasn’t one of those games where there was any worry about a comeback.
The Washington Capitals scored on their first two shots and five of their first eight, pummeling outmatched Atlanta 5-1 and making the Thrashers look like a fledgling expansion team instead of a developing club well into its fourth year.
It was the first victory for the Caps in their march through the Southeast Division, which continues tomorrow night against Carolina, Saturday night against the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., and Monday night in Tampa.
The victory gave Washington a seven-point lead in the division over idle Tampa Bay, its largest lead of the season. The Caps are 11-2-1 against division foes.
The Caps were trying out realigned lines, but it made no difference; the Thrashers offered little resistance, at least during the first period.
“But it’s good to see us go out and score goals that’s one of the reasons we changed the lines,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We were going to use them more minutes, but when you get up by that much, I wanted to get the fourth line involved because it’s going to be a long road trip.”
Bob Hartley, the defensive-minded coach who won a Stanley Cup in Colorado, was hired by the Thrashers on Jan.14 to bring some of that philosophy to Atlanta. Last night his team ignored everything it had been taught in the previous month.
The first two goals were the direct result of missed defensive assignments by Atlanta, a lack of discipline in both cases. The Caps came out of their zone with 3-on-1 advantages and goalie Byron Dafoe, a former Capital, was helpless.
Dafoe, who had played only once previously since returning from a groin injury, was mercifully benched after the first period. He surrendered five goals on the first eight shots and was replaced by Pasi Nurminen, who was cheered when he stopped the first two he faced in the second period.
“He’s a goalie and you sympathize what he’s going through,” said Olie Kolzig of Dafoe, who is his best friend away from the rink. “It’s not exactly a great way to start when you got Jaromir Jagr’s line coming down on you 3-on-1 and they tic-tac around you for the first two goals. I thought they did a better job protecting Nurminen, not allowing any more odd-man rushes.
“But at the same time it’s a big win for us, and we knew how well they were playing. It was a huge win. We thought this might have been the toughest game of the trip. We still have three to go, but we really came out of the gate hard and we maintained it. We didn’t sit back when it was 5-0.”
The Caps weren’t on a pad-the-stats mission, but it was virtually impossible to pass on the opportunities that were presented. The goals came from five individuals, but some of the circumstances were similar.
Less than two minutes into the game Jagr, Robert Lang and Kip Miller broke out with only one Thrasher in front of them. Jagr ended a three-way passing play with his 31st goal. Two minutes later, the same threesome produced the same result, only this time Lang shot through a defenseman’s legs for the goal.
Eight minutes in, Joel Kwiatkowski shot from the right point and the puck squiggled through bodies and Dafoe’s legs, coming to rest behind him. Mike Grier finished it off, his 14th.
Eleven minutes in, Dainius Zubrus came out of the penalty box, took a pass from Ken Klee, was off on a breakaway and scored. Washington’s final goal came on its first power play. Sergei Gonchar let loose with a heavy slap shot from the top of the right circle that nicked Michael Nylander en route to the back of the net.
Atlanta picked up a goal midway through the second on a power play when Slava Kozlov redirected a Marc Savard shot past Kolzig.
Cassidy said he had no inkling the scoring outburst was coming.
“I thought we’d kick the stuffing out of Montreal, I thought we’d have jump, they’d be tired,” he said. “I know we made some plays early on, but you give Jagr’s line odd-man rushes like that, it’s a tough way to start the game and they paid the price.”
The five-goal outburst in the first tied the season high for the Caps, who had five in the second on Jan.11 in a 12-2 romp over Florida at MCI Center.