[AP Preview - WashingtonCaps.com Preview]
In Ilya Kovalchuk, the Atlanta Thrashers have one of the hottest goal scorers in the League, as the winger has lit the lamp ten times in his last eight games. In fact, since the first of January, no one has more goals than Kovalchuk's 19... but someone has just as many. That someone, not surprisingly, is Alexander Ovechkin.
But whereas the team that will try to contain Kovalchuk tonight has done exactly that recently - Ilya hasn't scored on a Washington netminder since December 8, 2007, a scoreless stretch of six games - Ovechkin's Thursday night opponents haven't fared as well at stopping Number Eight, who has tallied a dozen times in his last ten meetings with Atlanta and has more goals in his career against the Thrash (23) than against any other opponent.
And as impressive as these two Russian goal scorers are, their fellow countryman and Ovechkin's teammate, Alex Semin, leads the entire NHL in goals per minute of five-on-five ice time (only two of his goals have come on the power play). Throw in Slava Kozlov (nine points in his last eight games and 52 on the season), Sergei Fedorov (nine points in February) and Viktor Kozlov's return to the Caps' lineup and top line, and to say there will be heavy Russian artillery on display at the VC tonight would be an understatement.
Behind the WWII nostalgia evoked by a cliched metaphor, however, lies the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers are a bad hockey team. They have the second-worst points percentage, goals against average and penalty kill in the League (though, interestingly, they have been better in almost every aspect of the game away from home), and have already suffered through four losing streaks of four or more games this season. Just the kind of team that's likely to give the Caps trouble? Maybe. After all, Boston awaits on Saturday.
Then again, the Caps have responded well to embarrassment thus far in 2008-09, so perhaps they come out focused, disciplined and prepared to take care of business. If not, at least the two teams should put on an entertaining show.