On April 3, 2001 an undrafted defenseman made his NHL debut at Phillips Arena as a member of the Atlanta Thrashers. Tonight, in the very same building, that same defenseman may well complete an even less likely journey back to the NHL than the one that led up to his first game nearly eight years ago.
That blueliner, of course, is the Caps' Brian Pothier, sidelined since January 3, 2008 with (at least) his fifth concussion and the resultant after effects, and his return to the lineup is potentially as helpful as it is inspirational, equal parts trade deadline splash and Masterton Trophy-worthy story.
Expecting Pothier to be a savior, however, would be a mistake. Luckily, the Caps aren't in need of a messiah (they've already got one of those), and they'll be more than happy with 15 minutes of solid hockey a night while the team rotates defenders in and out of the lineup in order to be as fresh as possible come playoff time.
As if Pothier's return to Washington wasn't intrigue enough for one day, the team's other roster move on Sunday - bringing Simeon Varlamov up from Hershey and sending Michal Neuvirth back to Chocolatetown - certainly has all the looks of a move made with an eye to April rather than just playing out the string, as the team (and its fans) are no doubt anxious to get another look at the young Russian netminder who is 18-6-1/2.47/.910 in the AHL this season and was 2-0-0/1.50/.953 in his brief NHL call-up earlier in the year. The team needs to know what they've got in Varlamov right now so that both the player and the team can have a decent amount of confidence, should something happen to Jose Theodore (whose job as the starter is most certainly not in jeopardy). Besides, even Ken Dryden needed six regular season starts before a Cup-winning playoff run.
As for tonight's opponents, the Thrashers are actually the hottest team in the NHL right now, winners of five straight (including shutouts of Jose Theodore's two former clubs) by a combined score of 18-8. Kari Letonen is on fire (4-0-0/1.23/.960 in his last four), but they're still very much a team the Caps should be able to handle, especially considering a few trends:
- Atlanta is coming off a three-game road trip and is 6-9-2 on the season in their first games back home.
- The Caps are 28-11-3 following wins and 10-5-2 in road games following home games.
- Alex Ovechkin has 45 points in 27 career games against the Thrashers, including his 50th goal as a rookie and 60th last season, both scored in Atlanta, and site on 49 goals for this season. Anyone betting against him scoring #50 tonight? Me neither, and the Caps 28-4-2 when AO scores a goal in 2008-09.
But those stats mean nothing, and the Caps have certainly shown on the season that they can lose to anyone on any given night. Throw in the roster moves and milestone potential (Alex Semin and Nick Backstrom are each also one goal shy of a round number) and for a mid-March matchup between the Division's elite and an also-ran, tonight's game actually should be pretty entertaining. Here's hoping.