ATLANTA – The Atlanta Thrashers saw their goalie inexplicably collapse to the ice, then gave up a goal less than a minute after play resumed in the season opener.
Hard to blame them for not having their heads in the game.
“I didn’t take that very well,” defenceman Zach Bogosian said. “I almost got sick to my stomach.”
But the Thrashers learned during the first intermission that Ondrej Pavelec had regained consciousness at a hospital. Fired up and vowing to win one for their ailing goalie, Atlanta rallied for a 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Friday night, getting two goals from Evander Kane and stellar play from fill-in goalie Chris Mason.
After a winless pre-season, the Thrashers stunned mighty Washington, which had the league’s best record last season. They also made a winner of new coach Craig Ramsay, who at age 59 is getting another shot behind the bench as an NHL head coach after short, long-ago stints in Buffalo and Philadelphia.
He couldn’t have imagined a debut like this.
The excitement of opening night turned sombre just two minutes 30 seconds into the game when Pavelec suddenly lost consciousness and fell over backward during a stoppage at the other end of the ice.
He was treated for about 10 minutes on the ice before being wheeled off on a stretcher. He was taken to a local hospital, where preliminary tests were negative and Pavelec regained consciousness, even asking about the score of the game.
After Pavelec collapsed, Ramsay gathered the players around him on the bench.
“We just talked about the fact, would he like us to fold up our tent and go home? The obvious answer is no,” Ramsay said. “I thought our players responded extremely well and I thought (Mason) went in and was just wonderful. To me, it showed the character of a good group of guys.”
Kane’s first goal tied it 1-1 before the first intermission, but the Thrashers really turned it on after getting an encouraging report on Pavelec during the break.
They were urged on by Dustin Byfuglien, a star of Chicago’s run to the Stanley Cup championship last season and one of four players Atlanta acquired from the salary shedding Blackhawks over the summer, hoping that some of that winning attitude would rub off on a franchise that has never won a playoff game.
“It’s always sad to see someone get carried off like that,” Byfuglien said. “I just piped up and said let’s go win this one for him.”
Brooks Laich scored first for Washington. But the Thrashers shut down Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the high-scoring Capitals for nearly 45 minutes, scoring three straight goals to seize control.
About four minutes after Laich’s goal, Kane picked off the puck just inside the Washington blue-line, skated around Tomas Fleischmann and ripped a wrist shot over Michal Neuvirth’s right leg.
The 19-year-old Kane scored again on a penalty shot at 18:54 of the second period to make it 3-1. Mike Green grabbed the puck in the crease during a wild scramble in front of the net, sliding it clear with his left hand. But the officials caught him.
Going in alone against Neuvirth, Kane deked like he was going to the backhand and flipped the puck over the goalie’s pad.
It was a rough start for the Capitals, who are still smarting from an opening-round playoff loss to Montreal that ruined their brilliant regular season.
“We did not play our game at all,” Ovechkin said.
The red light came on late in the first period, appearing to signal a 2-1 lead for the Thrashers, after Rich Peverley poked the puck away from Neuvirth while he was covering it. The officials waved it off, saying the goalie had frozen the puck, and a wild melee erupted in the corner when John Erskine jumped on Peverley’s back and took him down.
Kane and Washington’s Eric Fehr also jumped into the mix, but no serious punches were thrown before the linesmen stepped in. Peverley was sent off for slashing; the other three received roughing penalties.
It wasn’t until 15:43 of the second that the Thrashers did go ahead for the first time. Andrew Ladd, another of the players acquired from Chicago, was stymied on a chance while all alone in front of the net. But Johnny Oduya kept the puck in at the blue line, fired another shot toward the goal and Ladd deflected it past Neuvirth.
Ovechkin finally broke through in the third, sending a perfect pass to Mike Knuble, who flipped a shot just under the crossbar to beat Mason.
But the Thrashers clinched it with 5 minutes remaining. Another newcomer, Fredrik Modin, beat Neuvirth to restore the Thrashers’ two-goal margin. Mason made it stand up with 29 saves—15 in the final period.
“They just outworked us,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You get rewarded when you outwork the other team.”
NOTES: The attendance-challenged Thrashers put up a black curtain to block off a couple of thousand seats in the upper deck. The announced crowd was 15,596, about 3,000 short of capacity. … The Thrashers snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Capitals dating to April 2009. Washington swept last year’s season series, winning all six games in regulation.