"We did it to ourselves again," winger Colby Armstrong said minutes after the Thrashers fell 2-1 to the Washington Capitals on Thursday night. "We couldn't get a win to get back into it. It's frustrating. It's been that same way for the last few weeks."
Losses by the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins -- who along with the idle Montreal Canadiens entered the night with 82 points -- cleared the way for the Thrashers to pull even in the race for one of the final three spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Once again, however, the Thrashers failed to capitalize.
Matt Bradley, a player not normally known for his stickhandling ability, was allowed to roam free from behind Atlanta's net and slip the puck under goalie Ondrej Pavelec midway through the third period. Veteran defenseman Chris Chelios, who the Thrashers signed as a free agent before the trading deadline, took responsibility for the "miscommunication" on the game-winner.
The Thrashers (34-32-12) have still yet to beat the Capitals in four meetings -- and Atlanta faces the NHL's top team once more, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins twice more in their final four regular season matches.
"I'm pleased with our effort and how we played," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "To date, it's the best game we played against them. But whether it's 10-1 or 2-1, it's still zero points for us. That's all that matters. "
Atlanta looked to be in good shape through two periods.
Armstrong set up the Thrashers' lone goal with two minutes left in the second. He maneuvered around Washington defenseman Tom Poti and shuffled it to Thrashers rookie Tim Stapleton, who skated across the crease and beat Semyon Varlamov for his first career tally.
"It was 1-1 going into the third," Armstrong said. "It was big. I liked our position with that [score]. I thought we were playing really solid and keeping their guys in check. We just weren't able to get that next one."
That's been the case for more than just the Thrashers. Instead of a playoff berth, it often seems like Boston, Montreal, Atlanta and Philadelphia are competing for a tax audit rather than a slot in the postseason.
"It doesn't mean anything," Anderson said. "It just means they've given us another chance. We have to find ways to win and get points. If everything stays the same, we're out of the playoffs."
The Thrashers have four games left and there's a slight chance that Armstrong, Atlanta's third-leading scorer, may have to miss some time. He delivered what appears in replays to be a forearm or elbow to the head of Caps rookie Mathieu Perrault in the second period.
Referees didn't penalize Armstrong for the hit, but put him and Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn into the penalty box after they scuffled afterward. The league, however, could fine or suspend Armstrong under its supplementary discipline policy.