While it's only October, few people expected much from the Atlanta Thrashers this season, other than to be a popular team at the trading deadline as the team is weighing to trade star Ilya Kovalchuk at the deadline to avoid letting him possibly walk away as an unrestricted free agent over the summer.
However, thanks to Kovalchuk's seven goals in six games, Atlanta has suffered only one regulation loss in those games (4-1-1) and sits one point behind the Capitals heading into Thursday's matchup at Philips Arena.
Despite being three weeks into the new season, the Capitals haven't faced a Southeastern opponent yet so far this year, even facing Central Division opponents more (twice) than their own 24-game divisional slate so far this campaign. But Atlanta is up first - with another game in the same venue slated for next Thursday - and the Caps certainly had their troubles in Georgia last season, dropping two of three games before salvaging the last visit in the final week of the regular-season.
After a four-game losing skid (0-2-2), Washington has rebounded for two straight wins over San Jose and Nashville, mostly thanks to Ovechkin's four goals in those two contests. The two-time Hart Trophy winner is on pace to equal Wayne Gretzky's 92 goals in a season with his early performance, already notching more points this October than any first month of his career with five games yet to play.
Atlanta is coming off a 2-1 shootout loss in Montreal Tuesday night, a game where Slava Kozlov hit Scott Gomez from behind and could face some NHL discipline as a result.
With Jose Theodore battling back spasms and unable to dress for last Saturday's game, Semyon Varlamov probably will get the start for Washington after a decent performance against Nashville, although unfortunately for the young Russian, featuring another brief flurry of ineffectiveness that allowed the Predators two quick goals.
Up front, the Capitals may be a bit thin should Boyd Gordon not play, as well as Alexander Semin, who missed two practices this week due to an undisclosed illness. The Caps might opt to recall a forward or two from Hershey should those two be unable to play against the Thrashers, or they could be forced to dress Michael Nylander for the first time this year, who has been a healthy scratch for 17 consecutive playoff, preseason and regular-season contests dating back to Game 3 of the Penguins series last spring - although Bruce Boudreau threw water on using Nylander after Wednesday's practice per In the Room.
Semin would be a tough to replace, as he is currently tied for fifth in the NHL in goal-scoring with six goals in eight games, and certainly makes the team's forward corps more dangerous with his presence. While he did skate in Tuesday's practice, he missed Monday's and Wednesday's practices, so his status remains up in the air for Thursday's game.
Thursday night's contest could shed some light on if the Thrashers will be a season-long threat to the Capitals in the Southeast, and should provide some entertaining hockey with two of the league's top-goal scorers going head-to-head.