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Thrashers weather two storms


"... the players arrive to work by bus, not limousine, so yes, there will be a game today."-- Legendary announcer Doc Emerick in opening Sunday's NBC Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals NHL Game of the Week.

Yes, the Penguins and Capitals played and oh what a game it was. The two biggest stars delivered virtuoso performances, with Ovechkin's Caps prevailing 5-4 in overtime. Ovechkin had a hat trick plus an assist on the game-winner. Crosby staked his Pens to a 2-0 lead with two tallies in the first.

Maybe only those two guys could top the backstory, though.

With the nation's capital shut down by an unbelievable snowstorm, the NHL carried on. The Penguins flew from a Saturday afternoon game in Montreal, but could only make it as far as Newark, New Jersey. From there, they bused through treacherous interstate conditions, arriving at around 2:30 a.m. for their noon face-off. Everyone behind the scenes had to scramble to make it happen, including the training staff and equipment managers, who caught a few hours of sleep at the Verizon Center after hanging up the last piece of gear shortly after 4 a.m.

The prelude to the national game featuring the defending Stanley Cup champs and Ovechkin's gang -- now winners of 14-straight games -- was the Friday night tilt between the Caps and the Atlanta Thrashers. What a memorable trip for the visitors.

They had arrived in Washington, D.C. with captain Ilya Kovalchuk in tow and remained stranded on Saturday morning due to the relentless, heavy snow. In between, Kovalchuk was traded to New Jersey for defenseman Johnny Oduya and rookie winger Niclas Bergfors, plus prospect Patrice Cormier and a 2010 first-round pick. Anssi Salmela returned to the Devils, and the two teams will switch second-round picks as well this summer. Who knew that the trade would be the milder of the two storms that the Thrashers would face on this D.C. stop?

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The other storm front was the game itself, in which the new Thrashers got into town in time to play. Unfortunately, neither Oduya nor Bergfors could make a difference in the outcome as the high-flying, supremely confident Capitals posted their franchise best 13th-straight win overall, and 10th in a row at home, tying a club best. It was also their sixth consecutive over the Thrashers -- the most ever in the series. Both Oduya and Bergfors acquitted themselves nicely and the team in total played a strong game, but the Capitals overwhelmed Atlanta in opportunistic fashion.

Saturday meant a home game for Atlanta against the Florida Panthers. Problem was, the team's postgame charter was cancelled, the plane unable to land in Washington. Instead, the Thrashers loaded a bus and headed to Richmond, Virginia at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. The trip took four harrowing hours -- believe me, I'm being kind, as I had a row four window seat on the driver's side the whole way -- with another two-and-a-half hours spent on the tarmac, as airport personnel tried to de-ice and get the plane airborne.

The team arrived in Atlanta around 5:45 p.m. for a seven o'clock face-off. The league pushed the start time back to nearly eight.

So, after losing a game and their captain and franchise cornerstone the night before, then traveling all day under dire conditions, the Thrashers took the ice and promptly fell behind 2-0 in the first period. Predictable, I guess, given the circumstances. What followed the rest of the way was anything but.

The 17,000-plus fans -- yes, a curiously large, loud and supportive crowd showed up for the team's first home game sans Ilya -- saw the reconfigured Thrashers play with passion and cohesion. Defenseman Ron Hainsey was especially inspired, flying all over the ice -- even dropping his gloves for his first fight as a Thrasher.

Atlanta completed an inspiring performance with a 4-2 victory, the game-winner appropriately netted by Bergfors. The crowd stood as one, loud and proud, acknowledging both the effort and the outcome. It was a moment in time, but seemed to symbolize what Doc Emerick would allude to the next day in D.C. Hockey players are different. Grueling bus travel to get to a game is part of the culture, even for multi-million dollar players. Forget the game? Not without a try, while the NBA summarily cancelled the Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards game scheduled for Saturday night.

While the snow in D.C. made for a memorable moment for two of the league's top teams, wouldn't it be ironic that it was a snowstorm that brought a team from Atlanta together and helped them dig out from under a decade of random mediocrity? They'll have to do it without the scoring prowess of Kovalchuk. For a night, though, against all odds, the Thrashers showed anything is possible.

It's the hockey way.