WASHINGTON - After losing three in a row, the NHL's highest scoring team buckled down and won an old-fashioned, not-much-shooting, lots-of-whistles type of game.
Matt Bradley broke a third-period tie Thursday night with his first goal in 2-plus months and the Washington Capitals took a 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers, who missed a vital chance to gain ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
It was a change of pace for the Capitals, who had been outscored 9-1 in the first periods of their three-game skid, having perhaps become overconfident in their potent offence's ability to overcome any deficit.
"We talked about the last couple of games, if we had played that way in the playoffs, it wasn't going to work," Bradley said. "We knew it was going to be a playoff-style game tonight because they're fighting for their lives. The first two periods were kind of boring with not much happening, but you've just got to wait it out and not make any stupid moves and you know your breaks will come."
The break came when Bradley knocked Chris Chelios off the puck in the right corner and skated to the crease and put a backhander between Ondrej Pavelec's legs with 10:14 remaining. It was Bradley's ninth goal of the season and first since Jan. 19.
"Once I got that goal, it's a little bit of a rush," Bradley said. "For the rest of the period I was on a little bit of a high. It just makes you a little bit looser."
In a possible preview of a first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, the Capitals put aside of week of spotty play and moved closer to clinching the Presidents' Trophy for best overall record. Nicklas Backstrom scored his 30th goal, Alex Ovechkin had an assist for his 102nd point, and Semyon Varlamov improved his bid to be the No. 1 goalie for the post-season by making 19 saves in his first win since March 4.
The win was No. 50 for the Capitals, tying the club record. Washington also has had Atlanta's number this season, winning all five meetings by a combined score of 24-11.
The Thrashers started the day in ninth place in the East with five games to play and two points behind Philadelphia, Boston and Montreal in a logjammed battle for the final playoff spots. At least they didn't fall further behind: Philadelphia and Boston both lost, and Montreal had the night off.
"It just means they've given us another chance," Atlanta coach John Anderson said. "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."
The Thrashers' only goal came from Tim Stapleton, playing his fourth game with the team after getting called up from the minors. Anderson said his team has had to scale back its style a bit because of fatigue in the cramped schedule following the Olympic break, and the Capitals were happy to play along.
"They played a style that was very tight and a very playoff-ready style, which I don't know if we necessarily expected, and we kind of played the same," Atlanta defenceman Ron Hainsey said. "It was kind of a pre-lockout playoff game, really. It wasn't a ton of chances. They got the timely goal when they needed it, and that's the difference."
The Capitals opened the scoring in the final minute of the first period when Mike Green's shot from the point was tipped in by Backstrom. The goal put Backstrom at the 30-goal plateau for the first time - his previous high was last season's 22.
An active second period included Colby Armstrong's forearm to the face of Mathieu Perreault that knocked the young Capitals centre to the ice. Armstrong wasn't called for a penalty - until Shaone Morrisonn stepped in to retaliate. Armstrong and Morrisonn scuffled, and both were sent off for 2 minutes.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau called the hit "flagrant," while Armstrong said it was an accident.
"I was going to go right through him. I think he kind of bailed on me a little bit," Armstrong said. "I didn't mean to get my arms up into his neck or anything like that."
Stapleton tied it late in the period when he got behind defenceman Tom Poti and deposited a feed from Armstrong past Varlamov. It was the second NHL goal for Stapleton and first with the Thrashers.
Varlamov hasn't looked the same since returning from his groin and knee injuries in February, but his performance could put pressure on Jose Theodore as Boudreau decides on a starting playoff goalie. Theodore has struggled in his last two games.
"It was a great confidence-booster," Boudreau said. "He hadn't won in a while."
NOTES: Atlanta D Pavel Kubina sat out with an upper-body injury. He was replaced by Chelios, who played his fifth game with the Thrashers. ... Washington C Brooks Laich wore a full cage helmet as he returned after missing four games with facial injuries from taking a puck in the face during practice. "He adds another dimension to our team. If it was a puzzle, he fits that thing in and he completes us," said Boudreau, who then laughed at the corniness of that statement. ... LW Quintin Laing (lower-body) and D John Carlson (upper-body) missed the game for the Capitals. ... Boudreau is good pals with Anderson, but there's no friendly sympathy on tap this late in the season. "I want to beat him real bad," Boudreau said. "It gives you bragging rights at the golf tournament." ... Green matched his career high with his 73rd point.