Then his replacement got hurt, forcing Dunham back onto the ice. Atlanta gave away a third-period lead and lost 6-4 to the Washington Capitals on Monday night, eliminating any chance the Thrashers had of reaching the playoffs for the first time.
"It's just one of those nights where the bounces were funny bounces. It's a bad time to have one of those nights," said Dunham, who had won four straight starts in place of injured regular Kari Lehtonen. "What else can you say?"
The Thrashers led after 11 seconds on Bobby Holik's goal, then were up 4-3 entering the final period thanks to former Capitals star Peter Bondra's goal. But the Capitals -- who'll finish 27th in the 30-team NHL -- kept coming back.
"You do not play that way in big games. It's unacceptable," Holik said.
"Six goals against, trying to get in the playoffs," he added, his voice trailing off.
Capitals rookie sensation Alex Ovechkin scored the tying goal and assisted on the go-ahead goal. Ovechkin, honored during ceremonies before and after Washington's home finale, reached 52 goals and 105 points; both totals rank third in NHL history for a rookie.
"I hope next season will be better," Ovechkin said. "I think next season we'll go to the playoffs, for sure."
Atlanta entered the day ninth in the Eastern Conference, four points behind No. 7 Montreal and three behind No. 8 Tampa Bay. Victories Monday over Washington and Tuesday over Florida, combined with a loss by the Canadiens or Lightning, would have put the Thrashers in the postseason.
But they couldn't pull it off.
"I'm very sad for the entire organization that we come down to the second-last game and we can't force that 82nd game to mean something," Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said. "It's close. But close is not good. It's only good in curling. It doesn't count in hockey."
Dunham allowed five of the goals. Brooks Laich made it 1-1 at 3:52 of the first period on a shot that appeared to ricochet off Dunham's left skate and glove. Washington went ahead 23 seconds later on the first of Matt Pettinger's two goals, giving him 20 for the season.
Hartley promptly pulled Dunham, who faced five shots in the opening 4:15 -- and made only three saves. Dunham took a seat at the far end of Atlanta's bench area and leaned against the glass, a ballcap pulled low over his eyes.
Michael Garnett, a rookie who's shuttled between Atlanta and the minors this season, played the rest of the first period and allowed one goal. But between periods, he told Hartley he couldn't continue because of a pulled groin.
So Dunham went back out, shutting down Washington in the second period. But Ovechkin scored from the left slot on a pass from Ben Clymer to tie it 2:36 into the final period, then found Brian Willsie open during a two-man advantage for the score that made it 5-4 at the 8:58 mark. Pettinger tacked on an insurance goal at 12:26.
Atlanta trailed 3-2 when defenseman Garnet Exelby tied the game 6:40 into the second period with his first goal of the season, a slapshot through traffic. Bondra -- the career leader for Washington in several scoring categories -- put the visitors up 4-3 only 2:09 later.
Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig finished with 38 saves, 14 in the final period, against a team that beat Washington in five of the teams' seven other meetings this season.
"We hate that team. I think it started at the beginning of the year," Kolzig said. "I'm not going to say they're dirty, but they push the limits in how hard they play. They spanked us a few times earlier in the year. It was sweet revenge. We got the last laugh."
- Kolzig earned his 20th win; it's his seventh season with at least that many.
- Steve McCarthy scored for Atlanta. Brooks Laich and Rico Fata each had a goal and an assist for Washington.
- The attendance of 16,891 was Washington's third-highest of the season. The team's final home average of 13,905 ranks 28th in the league.