Caps vs. Thrashers - Will Laich's Return Provide a Spark?

The Washington Capitals hope to get a lift tonight against Atlanta (7 p.m. Verizon Center) when all-purpose forward Brooks Laich returns to the lineup after suffering a freak facial injury in practice last week. Washington has gone 1-1-2, including setbacks in three straight, with Laich out of the lineup and have struggled noticeably on special teams and in their own end in his absence.

"There are so many situations in games when I need something and look to Brooks," head coach Bruce Boudreau said recently. "Lately when I've looked for him he hasn't been there. It really shows you how much it means to us to have him in the lineup."

Laich most likely will step in for either recent Hershey call-up Matthieu Perreault or shot-blocking and penalty-killing specialist Quintin Laing, both energy guys for a team that hasn't played at it's usual high energy level of late. Perreault has scored in both games since being recalled, so it would seem odd for him to sit, but Laing is a better fit on the fourth line, which is where Perreault would likely wind up if in the lineup tonight.

"We're very aware of them. If they get two points tonight they are right in the playoff picture," Laich said. "We're going to try to get back to playing the way we can and set a good precedent going into the playoffs."

Caps Injury Update:
Milan Jurcina (hernia) out 2-4 weeks
Boyd Gordon (back) day-to-day, rehabbing in Hersey
Scott Walker (knee) day-to-day
Brendan Morrison (lower body) day-to-day
Brooks Laich (face) should be in the lineup tonight

Thrashers Injury Update:
Evander Kane (broken foot) out until at least the weekend
Pavel Kubina (undisclosed) left Tuesday's game, status uncertain

Despite the Caps' recent struggles, they have 110 points, a team record, but try tonight for the fourth time to tie the team single-season victory mark with win No. 50. They have reached that number twice in their history, including a year ago. Washington also got some help in its quest for the President's Trophy last night when Dallas throttled San Jose, 5-1, on the strength of a Steve Ott hat trick and a strong overall performance by a familiar face, former Cap draftee and forward Brian Sutherby. The Caps only need to go 2-3-1 the rest of the way to clinch the league's top overall point total. Their magic number currently stands at five, which means any combination of five points earned by Washington and/or missed out on by the Sharks will secure them the hardware.

Tonight the Caps take on a team fighting for its playoff life in Atlanta, which finds itself just two points behind Boston in the race for the eighth seed in the East after defeating Toronto Tuesday. The bad news for the Thrashers is that Washington seems determined to right the ship tonight, and the Caps have won all four meetings between the teams this season, including the last two by a 13-3 margin. Still, the Caps have gotten out of the gates slowly of late, being outscored 9-1 in the first period in their last three losses, so Atlanta hopes to jump out early and get Washington second-guessing itself right away.

The Caps, who have locked up the top seed in the East, will have a big say in who they meet in the opening round of the playoffs as they face both the Thrashers and Bruins twice in the season's final six contests. Atlanta is fighting for just its second postseason berth in club history. The Thrashers face the Caps twice, New Jersey and Pittsburgh twice to close the season - the toughest road faced by any of the teams fighting for the final Eastern Conference playoff spots.

Despite the recent struggles, Washington has five fewer regulation losses than any team in the league. The Caps have struggled on special teams of late and enter the game having scored on 25.7 percent of their power-play opportunities, compared to the Thrashers' 16.7 percent extra-man efficiency. Washington has successfully killed 78.2 percent of its shorthanded situations, while Atlanta has made good 81.8 percent of the time.

Semyon Varlamov is expected to be in goal tonight for the Caps. A strong performance by the young Russian could put him back into the mix to be the playoff starter given Jose Theodore's difficulties, which can be attributed as much to team miscues as his own, the past two games.

"They're going to come out hard," Boudreau said. "It's not like it's any big secret ... They've come out hard in the first period before against us. We've gotten lucky and they've gotten nothing and from there we've kind of taken over. We'd like to get back to doing the things against them that we did the first four games, but evidently we aren't catching teams by surprise anymore."