That was just fine with the Thrashers, because Kovalchuk didn’t even suit up.
Kari Lehtonen had 36 saves in his third shutout of the season, and the Thrashers won 2-0 Saturday night despite mustering a season-low 13 shots on goal.
Todd White broke up a scoreless duel with 8:26 left, beating Olie Kolzig with a shot between the circles after taking a centering pass from Mark Recchi. Marian Hossa added an empty-net goal with 40 seconds remaining.
Kovalchuk, Atlanta’s leading scorer with 64 points, missed a second straight game with an injured right knee. The Thrashers made up for his absence with a tight defensive effort and a superb job in goal by Lehtonen in his 10th career shutout.
"We didn’t want to get in a shootout tonight," Atlanta coach Don Waddell said. "We didn’t think that would be to our advantage. We really wanted to keep it tight. When you’re missing your leading goal scorer, it’s always a challenge. You have to change your game plan to play to your strengths."
Ovechkin had four goals and an assist in Washington’s previous game, a 5-4 win over Montreal, but Atlanta limited the NHL’s leading scorer to only three futile shots over the first two periods and seven overall.
It was the second time in three games the Capitals were shut out.
"We have to get a work-ethic goal. Somebody’s got to go to the net and maybe take one in the ankle or something to get those goals," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.
"In the last five or six games we haven’t had guys doing that. It’s like they’re sitting back and going, ‘Alex, you score a couple goals and we’ll win the game.’ That’s not how you win a division, make the playoffs or win consistently."
The victory thrust Atlanta into a first-place tie in the Southeast Division with Carolina. Both have 56 points, followed by Florida and Washington with 53.
"It was a playoff-type hockey game because both teams knew what was at stake," Boudreau said.
The Thrashers prevailed without Kovalchuk and despite being outshot 36-13 because Lehtonen was impenetrable. Then again, his defense made the job a whole lot easier.
"It wasn’t like there was a barrage of shots and he was making unbelievable saves," Boudreau said.
Lehtonen was good enough to blank Ovechkin, which doesn’t happen that often. In 20 career games against Atlanta before this one, Ovechkin had 16 goals and 16 assists.
"Everybody sees the highlights — him scoring four goals. I really have to watch him all the time," Lehtonen said. "The biggest key was we didn’t take penalties tonight; a couple in the first period and that was it. Those are the times when he’s really, really dangerous."
Atlanta was called for three penalties, one of which coincided with one against Washington.
The Thrashers managed only one shot on goal in the opening 15 minutes, a long-range blast by Pacal Dupuis that Kolzig easily turned aside. Atlanta took only two shots in the first period; Washington had eight, half of them on the power play and only one by Ovechkin.
With 13 minutes elapsed in the second period, the Capitals had a 16-4 advantage in shots on goal. Ovechkin nearly scored with a shot from below the left circle at the 14-minute mark, but Lehtonen made a sprawling save.
"To be honest, I don’t think we had too much business to be in the game after two periods, getting outshot like that," Lehtonen said. "I was lucky a few times."Notes: Atlanta leads the season series 3-2. ... Bobby Holik played in his 164th consecutive game with Atlanta, tied with Greg De Vries for second place in team history behind Kovalchuk (179). ... The Capitals have taken 105 more shots than their opponents in the first period.