- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2010

Facing an Atlanta team desperately needing two points to keep its faint playoff hopes alive, the Capitals got locked into a defensive struggle that didn’t feature a lot of goals — or shots.

It was fitting one of Washington’s grinders scored the game-winner just before the halfway mark of the third, taking a nifty feed from Jason Chimera along the boards and beating Thrashers netminder Ondrej Pavelec with a shot between the pads for the 2-1 Capitals win.

While the victory wasn’t pretty — and ended a three-game skid — it was the team’s 50th of the season, matching a franchise record set back in 1985-86 and equaled last season, with still five games still remaining in the regular season. The Caps also reduced the number of points needed to clinch the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy — and with it, home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs — to just three.

“I thought it was a playoff game,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I mean, it was tense and [there] weren’t a lot of shots, but those are the hardest games to play because you have got to stay focused. … I thought we bared down and we proved we can play defensive when we want to and have to. Tonight was one of those nights.”

Nicklas Backstrom reached a personal milestone as well, notching his 30th goal of the campaign in the final minute of the first period. The Swede continues to have a stellar season, with Alexander Ovechkin also picking up an assist as he trails Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin in the race for the leading point-getter in the NHL.

Semyon Varlamov also had a nice evening, making 18 stops, although unlike the last two Capitals’ efforts, the team was much more responsible defensively in front of their netminder as they had been the last few games.

“It was a great confidence boost for him,” Boudreau said. “He hadn’t won in a while and held them to one goal. I didn’t think they had a great many chances, but the chances they had were good ones, and he was up to the task.”

The win also likely impacts the Capitals’ first-round playoff opponent, as it severely damages Atlanta’s hopes of the franchise’s second playoff berth. Although they trail the last spot in the Eastern Conference by just a pair of points, they only have four games left in the season to try and pass Boston, Philadelphia or Montreal.

“We’re behind, and we got to win,” Thrashers coach John Anderson told reporters. “It doesn’t mean anything [that Boston and Philadelphia lost]. It just means that they’ve given us another chance. We’ve got to find ways to win and get points. If everything stays the same, we’re out of the playoffs. We’ve got to make some hay here.”

John Erskine put the Caps shorthanded just 1:14 into the contest, getting called for roughing on Atlanta’s Colby Armstrong, but the Caps were able to kill off the minor.

Washington got its turn with the extra man with 5:11 gone, but couldn’t even put a shot on goal during the power-play, leaving the game scoreless.

Varlamov, trying to make his case to be the starting netminder come playoff time, made a nice save on Maxim Afinogenov on a breakaway, kicking out his leg to make the stop. He also made another nice save on Niclas Bergfors with just under three minutes left in the frame, diving after being unable to corral a shot, but keeping the game scoreless.

The Caps got their best chances of the period just in the final two minutes, with the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Alexander Semin line generating several chances, culminating in Backstrom tipping in a Mike Green shot with :57.7 left in the period for a 1-0 Washington lead. The goal gave Backstrom his first career 30-goal season with Washington.

While the Capitals didn’t put a lot more shots than they did in losses to Calgary and Ottawa, they did also only allow six against Varlamov, and took a lead into the first intermission for the first time in over a week.

“We came out with a lead in the first period,” Mike Knuble said of the first-period effort. “It was a mental thing. It’s not like worrying about whats wrong with our game or anything. We just have to be mentally ready to start the game. Other teams in this league can burn you in the first. You have to be ready.”

Washington got an injury scare when Tomas Fleischmann slammed into the boards while trying to chase the puck, and left hobbling to the locker room, although he did return a couple of minutes later.

Atlanta’s Jim Slater nearly tied the game with a tip, but it just went wide of the cage to keep the Caps ahead.

Backstrom had an excellent chance to up Washington’s lead with five minutes gone in the period, as he fed Knuble on a 2-on-1 break, but Backstrom’s pass didn’t connect thanks to a good defensive play on Knuble. Ovechkin was called for a penalty after the play broke up, but the Thrashers couldn’t take advantage — and nearly yielding a goal after he stepped out of the penalty box as he made a feed to Green from behind the net for Washington’s first shot of the period just over eight minutes deep in the period.

Things got nasty when Colby Armstrong nearly went knee-on-knee — with an elbow and punch to the jaw to boot — on Mathieu Perreault, leading to a scrum between him and Shaone Morrisonn. The officials called Armstrong and Morrisonn for matching minors, leaving the sellout crowd in an ornery mood.

“I just came in on the forecheck,” Armstrong said afterwards. “I thought I had a pretty good angle. I haven’t seen him play but he’s a skilled good lateral movement player. If anything, I just tried to reach out and get a piece of him. I was going to go right through him. I think he kind of bailed on the hit a little bit. I didnt mean to get my arms up into his neck or anything like that. I saw the replay and I just tried to get a piece of him as he came by me. It’s just one of those plays. I didn’t mean to do that.”

It didn’t help the fans’ mood when Semin was called for a trip at the tail end of the 4-on-4, giving the Thrashers a good chance to go on the board. Despite some close calls thanks to traffic in front of Varlamov, Washington stayed in front.

Atlanta did finally break through on a nifty play, as Tim Stapleton put the puck past Tom Poti along the boards, then Armstrong fed the puck back to Stapleton for his first goal to tie the game with 2:09 to play in the period for his first-ever NHL tally.

The Caps, who had trouble putting pucks on net in losses to Calgary and Ottawa, only had six in the second period for 13 total.

Washington had two good chances in the opening minutes of the third, but couldn’t get the puck past Pavelec.

Following that, the two teams didn’t generate a whole lot of shots, with the Caps getting the best chance as Eric Belanger had a chance to break in, but went wide and couldn’t connect on a centering feed through the crease.

Bradley was able to put the Caps back in front, taking a Chimera pass after a nifty spin move along the boards, and the breaking in front to beat Pavelec between the legs with 10:14 left in regulation.

“I just stole the puck and took it to the net,” Bradley said. “I don’t think Chimera saw me. Their thought I might be passing it to [David] Steckel. So, I just pulled it to the net. It was a lucky goal.”

The goal seemed to deflate the visitors, as despite their season likely riding on the line, the Thrashers did not generate a ton of good chances in the final minutes of regulation — as the Capitals pressed for an insurance tally.

“We really have to pay attention to details,” Green — who was paired with Backstrom in the locker room — said afterwards. “I thought tonight we did that, especially the last seven minutes of the game. We were getting pucks deep. Guys were going hard [to the net]. That’s what it’s going to take to win in the playoffs.”

The Capitals head to Columbus next to play their second-to-last road contest of the regular season, facing a Blue Jackets team that has beaten Washington three straight times, including a 5-4 overtime win back in November at Verizon Center. The Caps will look to record their 51st win of the season to set a new franchise mark, and also could potentially clinch the Presidents’ Trophy if the San Jose Sharks lose to Minnesota Friday night.

The Caps will play three of their last four regular-season games after that at home, with Boston making a pair of visits Monday and April 11th in the regular-season finale — and the return of the Thrashers next Friday.

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