ATLANTA | There wasn’t a lot to like, but a first-period outburst and another strong performance from rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov was enough for the Washington Capitals to inch closer to securing the No. 2 position in the Eastern Conference.
Two days after overcoming a slow start to beat Atlanta at Verizon Center, the Caps started fast with three first-period goals and held on for a 4-2 win Tuesday night against the Thrashers at Philips Arena.
“We didn’t play great,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “We are playing teams from the Southeast [Division]. … It is a difficult situation, but I think we understand that it might not be the prettiest, but we’re trying to create good habits right now. Once the playoffs start, we’re not going to have time to say, ‘OK, now it is playoff time and we can start playing.’ ”
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “I think we just played as good as we had to play. It wasn’t a very exciting game, I don’t think.”
Coupled with New Jersey’s loss to Toronto, the Caps now lead the Devils by four points for the No. 2 seed. If Washington gains one more point (or New Jersey fails to gain one) the Caps clinch the spot and home-ice advantage through the second round of the playoffs.
“It is important to us,” Pothier said. “Every single game we can play at home is going to be to our advantage, and [the No. 2 seed] is our goal right now.”
Tomas Fleischmann was credited with his second goal in as many games, and the Caps went ahead 1-0 at 8:20 of the first period. Fleischmann carried the puck toward the left post, waited out a defenseman and threw it into the crease behind goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Thrashers center Marty Reasoner tried to knock the puck away from danger but put it in his own net instead.
Rich Peverley tied the game 68 seconds later. Atlanta’s Ron Hainsey took the puck from Milan Jurcina in the high slot and fed it to Peverley, who deked to his backhand for his 15th of the season - and 13th since joining the Thrashers as a midseason waiver pickup.
Viktor Kozlov and Nicklas Backstrom answered with a pretty passing exhibition and goal 28 seconds later. Backstrom fed Kozlov, who flipped a backhand shot past Pavelec for his 13th of the year. It was Kozlov’s second goal since Jan. 31, a span of 20 games.
“It is good - it is not fair to leave the scoring to the same four guys every night,” Pothier said. “To get secondary scoring is huge for us. It is going to make us even deeper and more of a threat.”
Alexander Semin made it 3-1 Caps with a great individual effort. He tipped a loose puck away from defenseman Tobias Enstrom to spring himself on a breakaway and then scored despite being hooked by Zach Bogosian at 15:56 of the opening period.
The Caps spent much of the final 40 minutes killing off six penalties and relying on Varlamov to keep the Thrashers from rallying.
Reasoner atoned for his earlier flub with the lone goal of the second period. He tipped a point shot from Enstrom past Varlamov 65 seconds in. Other than a couple of long-distance shots from Alex Ovechkin, the Caps had few scoring chances in the period and only five shots on net.
Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov hooked up for the Caps’ fourth goal midway through the third. Fedorov won the faceoff to Ovechkin, who sent a shot to the net. Fedorov put the rebound past Pavelec, and replays showed that it went over the goal line, but Bogosian knocked it back into play - only to have Ovechkin tap it back in the net. The goal was Fedorov’s 11th of the season and third in as many games.
And when the Caps needed him, Varlamov was there. The 20-year-old rookie from Russia improved to 4-0-1 this season by making 29 saves, including a couple of highlight-reel quality stops on fellow countryman Ilya Kovalchuk.
“I think he stood on his head,” Fedorov said. “It was not an easy game for him to come up with those chances that he saved. He saved our [butts].”