The Atlanta Thrashers have not been very good lately, and when they have, it’s often because of goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
Back on Feb. 2 at Verizon Center, the Caps outshot the Thrashers 36-13 but couldn’t beat Lehtonen and lost 2-0. Eleven days later in Atlanta, the Caps fired 18 first period shots on Lehtonen, but did not score. Washington fell 3-2 in the shootout that night despite outshooting the Thrashers 41-28.
Last Friday in Washington, the Caps outshot Atlanta 37-12, and only Lehtonen’s fine goaltending kept the score from being worse than the 4-1 final. So despite outshooting the Thrashers by 114-53 in their three previous meetings, Washington had managed only three of a possible six points in the three previous meetings.
Lehtonen had a .937 save pct. against Washington in the last four meetings between the two teams, but the Caps managed to go 2-1-1.
Volume, volume, turn up the volume.
From previous meetings, it seemed as though Lehtonen often gets better as the game goes along if he’s not beaten early. I mentioned that to Brooks Laich after the morning skate, and said Friday’s game might be one where the Caps would need a good first period and an early goal or two.
“We’d like to,” he replied. “That would be an ideal start. One of the things we’d like to do that we didn’t do in the Chicago game is bury our chances. We’ve been getting chances but we have to make sure they go into the back of the net. A goalie like Lehtonen when he gets on a roll, he just keeps going and going and gets more and more confident. So if we can get one or two on him early and after that keep getting some shots and some traffic we’ll be okay.”
Bruce Boudreau also has the sense that Lehtonen is like a baseball pitcher that is vulnerable early. Get to him in the second or third inning, because if you don’t, he’ll be sailing along in the seventh.
“I agree with you,” said Boudreau. “The first game we played them that I was here [Dec. 7] we beat them 6-3 and I think we scored three in the first. Once we scored the first one, he was down. And when we scored the second one, he was down further. He’s a good goalie that just gets better and better and better. Sometimes the only thing that lets him down is his teammates in front of him. We have to get traffic in front of the net. If you watch other teams against him that are successful, it’s because when the puck goes to the net, two or three guys are going to the net like wild men and that’s what we have to do against him.”
The Caps got 22 shots in the first two period of Friday’s game, but only beat Lehtonen once. He made a few strong saves, especially at the end of the second period when the Caps turned up the jets on him a bit. But it wasn’t until the third period when they finally began driving the net and penetrating the suspect Atlanta defense that they began to have success. The Caps displayed their resilience once again, rebounding to win a must-win game, another thing Boudreau talked about earlier in the day.
“I think it’s real important to show that we can bounce back,” he said prior to the game. “That’s the No. 1 thing. We have to be able to bounce back and we can’t afford any lethargy at this time of the year. If this game game 18 or 20, sometimes you go from a winning streak to having a hard time getting back into it. We’re not afforded that luxury. We have to come out and we know what’s been successful against them from other teams as well as ourselves. We know their goaltending is great. If we sit back and have 18, 19 shots on them, that’s pretty easy for a guy like Lehtonen to stop. So we have to pelt them. If we get 40 shots and can can four goals, hopefully we can hold them to less.”
The Caps’ fourth goal came on their 44th shot. They added a fifth on an empty-netter. They held the Thrashers to fewer, and they live to fight another day.