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Ovechkin scores twice, first-place Capitals hand Thrashers fourth straight loss

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.

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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.