Capitals vs. Thrashers

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Atlanta, GA - The Washington Capitals have almost every player back from a team that cruised to the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy behind the NHL's most prolific attack last season.

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They also have a bitter taste in their mouths - again.

Oddsmakers from online sports book have made the Capitals –165 money line favorites for Thursday's game against the Thrashers. Current MLB Public Betting Information shows that 67% of more than 628 bets for this game have been placed on the Capitals -165.

Another postseason failure should motivate Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, who open their season Friday night with what they hope is a ninth consecutive victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.

Three consecutive Southeast Division titles have netted Washington (54-15-13) a total of one playoff series victory, and this spring's first-round loss to eighth-seeded Montreal was especially painful after the Capitals led the series 3-1.

High-powered Washington scored 45 more goals than any other team during the season, but managed one in each of the last three games en route to elimination.

"We've got an anger still of what went on and how we lost," coach Bruce Boudreau said during the preseason. "And I hope we're carrying that chip on our shoulder throughout the course of the year."

Boudreau's toughest job may be keeping his team focused even though the Capitals won't be able to answer their biggest questions until at least April.

"We know that's part of the deal here this year," right wing Mike Knuble said, "is that everybody's going to be waiting to see what happens in the playoffs. ... When that time comes, that'll be the time to answer the critics and the people who don't think we're good enough."

There seems little doubt that the Capitals will reach the postseason, with Ovechkin back to lead the way following his third consecutive 50-goal season.

There will be plenty of familiar faces around him, many coming off career-best performances. Nicklas Backstrom topped the 100-point mark for the first time in 2009-10, while Alexander Semin scored a career-high 40 goals and defenseman Mike Green added a career-best 76 points.

The Capitals hope the debut of 20-year-old Marcus Johansson can make them even more dangerous offensively, but Washington has come to rely on a level of continuity rare in the salary cap era.

"We came up with this plan years ago, and fortunately ownership stood by it," general manager George McPhee said. "We're starting Friday night with 11 of our own first-round picks in the lineup. The league average is four. The closest team to us has seven.

"It's a good team, they're our guys, and hopefully it leads to a Cup one of these days."

One area that has seen some change is in goal. The Capitals opted not to re-sign 30-game winner Jose Theodore in the offseason and presumptive starter Semyon Varlamov is recovering from an undisclosed injury, likely leaving Michal Neuvirth to start Friday.

It won't matter who's in net if the Thrashers (35-34-13) can't contain Washington better than they did last season.

The Capitals totaled 29 goals while winning all six meetings in regulation, extending an eight-game win streak against Atlanta that dates to April 2009.

Although they were 0-5-1 in the preseason, the Thrashers are hopeful that first-year coach Craig Ramsey can lead a rebuilding effort after they traded Ilya Kovalchuk - the franchise record holder in nearly every offensive category - to New Jersey on Feb. 4.

Their biggest offseason addition was Dustin Byfuglien, who scored 11 goals during the 2010 playoffs while helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup. The Thrashers elected to put Byfuglien back on defense, his original position before the Blackhawks moved him up front.

Three other players who aided the Blackhawks' championship effort - forwards Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd and defenseman Brent Sopel - have joined Atlanta, while veteran goalie Chris Mason arrived to share the load with 23-year-old Ondrej Pavelec.

The Thrashers, who have reached the playoffs once in franchise history, will begin the season with Alex Burmistrov on the roster after they selected the 18-year-old center eighth in the 2010 draft. Atlanta is also looking for progress from two other recent top picks in 19-year-old forward Evander Kane and 20-year-old defenseman Zach Bogosian.

"I think there is a big upside here," Byfuglien said. "We've got a lot of young, hard-working players and some veterans who know how to win. I see a lot of good things. I think it's going to be exciting."

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