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Kovalchuk leads Thrashers past Capitals 5-1
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WASHINGTON -- Glen Hanlon tapped his fingers on the podium while speaking slowly and softly, trying to dissect the worst stretch he could remember as a hockey coach or player.

His Washington Capitals had just dropped their fifth consecutive game, a 5-1 loss to Ilya Kovalchuk's streaking Atlanta Thrashers on Wednesday night, and Hanlon was asked if he believes his players can turn things around even though they have the NHL's fewest points and are off to the franchise's slowest start in 26 years.

"Of course I do - or I wouldn't go in tomorrow," Hanlon replied. "You never stop believing. That's the real hard part of handling losing, is that you can never stop believing. ... I believe in the players."

But on this night, Atlanta won for the seventh time in eight games, as Kovalchuk delivered two goals, raising his league-leading total to 19, along with two assists.

A handful of disgruntled Capitals fans in the announced crowd of 11,669 began booing in the second period, but that sentiment grew in strength by the third, when full-throated jeers were joined by chants urging the team to "Fire Hanlon!"

There were cheers when it was announced over the loudspeakers there was a minute left in the game.

Everyone associated with the Capitals might have been relieved to know team owner Ted Leonsis was not in the building; he already had headed to Florida to celebrate Thanksgiving. General manager George McPhee was present but declined to answer questions.

So it was left to Hanlon to discuss what is happening to a team that began the season 3-0. The Capitals have lost nine of 10 games, and 15 of 18, leaving them at 6-14-1 for 13 points, their lowest 21-game point total since having 12 in the 1981-82 season.

"When something goes wrong you, revert back or think back on negative things instead of things that have gone well, and that's the whole trick to turn this around," said Hanlon, who became Washington's coach in December 2003. "Does it make life difficult? Yeah, it does. ... It's harder for the players than it is on the coaching staff, that's for sure."

Perhaps Washington can take some hope from what Atlanta has done.

The Thrashers opened the season 0-6, then fired coach Bob Hartley and put general manager Don Waddell behind the bench. They are 11-4 since.

"We know what it feels like to be on the other end when things aren't going well," Atlanta's Todd White said. "The puck ends up in your net when things aren't going right. We worked ourselves out of it, and I'm sure they're going to be able to do the same."

Kovalchuk has been leading the way for the Thrashers, but he had a lot of help Wednesday, including Tobias Enstrom's three assists, and Niclas Havelid's goal and assist. Bobby Holik contributed his first goal in 15 games.

Kovalchuk "has a great passion right now for winning hockey games," Waddell said, "and the other players are feeding off that."

Alex Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead 1-0 with a power-play goal 2½ minutes into the second period, his 14th score of the season. That, though, was the highlight for the hosts, who no longer are talking about making the playoffs - the way they did during an offseason of additions.

Kovalchuk tied the game 4½ minutes later. Holik put Atlanta ahead 16:05 into the second period, and Havelid scored his first goal of the season with 31.8 seconds left. That last goal came off an assist from Kovalchuk, when Atlanta had a 3-on-4 rush.

Kovalchuk and Eric Perrin added insurance goals in the third period.

"It snowballed," Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier said. "We were careless. We made some plays that burnt us."

Notes: Washington scored first for the ninth time this season and is 5-4 when it does that; the Capitals are 1-10-1 when the opponent gets the first goal. ... Kovalchuk has scored in four games in a row.

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