Washington Capitals center Brendan Morrison, left, and left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) of Russia, leap as they celebrate their 4-3 win against the Atlanta Thrashers at an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009, at Philips Arena in Atlanta. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gregory Smith)
ATLANTA - Alex Ovechkin got Washington off to a good start. Semyon Varlamov bailed out the Capitals the rest of the way.
Ovechkin scored twice to add to his NHL-leading total, Varlamov turned away 38 shots - including a penalty shot - and the first-place Capitals survived a wild finish for their sixth straight win, 4-3 over the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night.
The Thrashers lost their fourth straight - all by one goal. This was their first contest without star Ilya Kovalchuk, who's expected to miss three to five weeks because of a broken right foot.
"He's a big part of their team," Ovechkin said. "Of course they missed him, but it is what it is."
The Capitals built a 3-0 lead and were still on top - barely - after three goals in the last 2:23, including an empty-netter by Washington's Mike Knuble and Zach Bogosian's second goal of the game for Atlanta just before the buzzer.
Varlamov stopped Jim Slater on a penalty shot in the first period and kept coming up big when Atlanta dominated over the final two periods. Washington went through an 11-minute span with one shot on goal and was outshot 41-32 after holding a 13-7 edge in the first period.
"He saved the game," Ovechkin said of Varlamov.
Atlanta (4-4-1) dropped below .500 for the first time after a 4-1 start, and it's easy to see why. They have trailed by three goals in their last three games, then come up just short in comebacks.
"We can't put ourselves behind the 8-ball," Rich Peverley said. "We have got to manage the game better."
Ovechkin opened the scoring just past the midway point of the first period, ripping a power-play goal past Ondrej Pavelec from the top of the left circle. Just under five minutes later, Ovechkin scooped up a loose puck after Maxim Afinogenov fell down, took off on a breakaway and snapped a shot over Pavelec's glove hand.
The Washington star had not scored a goal in his last five games against the Thrashers. He took care of that with his 12th and 13th of the season.
Ovechkin also assisted on Washington's third goal with a nifty pass, threading the puck all the way across the crease with Atlanta a man down. Brendan Morrison stopped the puck with his right skate and got off a shot that deflected in off the glove of Pavelec at 4:10 of the second period.
Down 1-0, the Thrashers had a chance to get back in the game when Slater was dragged down from behind by Brooks Laich and received a penalty shot.
Slater, playing for the first time since opening night, cut to his left and tried to put a wrist shot past Varlamov. The Washington goalie slid over to smother it between his right arm and chest.
Atlanta finally broke through early in the third on a power play that carried over from the previous period. Bogosian pinched in toward the left circle and one-timed a shot just under the crossbar with Varlamov screened in front by six-foot-four defenceman Shaone Morrisonn.
But Varlamov came up big the rest of the way, blocking several good scoring chances. He got in front of a point-blank shot from Bryan Little and stopped a short-handed breakaway by Tobias Enstrom.
Atlanta had a chance to complete the comeback when Todd White took a long pass from Slava Kozlov and scored on a breakaway with 2:23 remaining to make it 3-2. But Knuble scored into an open net with 52.1 seconds left, making Bogosian's goal at the buzzer moot.
NOTES: C Jason Krog, called up from the AHL after Kovalchuk went on the injured list, didn't play. ... Kozlov and rookie Evander Kane had six shots apiece for the Thrashers. ... The announced crowd at Philips Arena was 12,893, but the actual turnout appeared to be no more than 8,000. ... Bogosian's goal was allowed after a video replay. The teams had already left the ice.