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Battle of surging clubs pits Penguins vs. Thrashers

by Adam Kimelman /
THRASHERS (13-9-3) at PENGUINS (16-8-2)

TV -- SPSO (HD), FS-P (HD)

Last 10 --
Atlanta 7-3-0; Pittsburgh 9-0-1

Season series -- This is the second of four meetings between the teams. On Nov. 13, Evgeni Malkin had a hat trick and Sidney Crosby had a goal and 2 assists to lead the Penguins to a 4-2 victory in Atlanta.

Big Story -- There aren't two hotter teams in the Eastern Conference right now. The Thrashers have won six straight, while the Pens have won seven in a row and haven't lost in regulation in their last 10.

Team Scope:

Thrashers -- The best defensive pairings feature an offensive-minded player who can jump into the play and a defensive-minded partner who can cover for the offensive player. And that's what Atlanta has found in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom.

Byfuglien's goal and assist Tuesday gave him 10 goals and 27 points, tops among all blueliners this season. He also was named the NHL's third star for November. Enstrom, considered a defensive defenseman, actually is fourth among defensemen with 21 points. He has a plus-2 rating, while Byfuglien is a plus-5.

"I've tried a lot of different people. I just put them together and it happened to work. I think they do a great job together," coach Craig Ramsay told the team's website. "'Buff' is a bit of a gambler. Toby is an excellent defensive defenseman as well as a kid who can handle the puck. But Toby battles and he's just amazingly strong for a small man. He wins his battles down low in the zone. He's got a great stick. So together, the big guy and the little guy, it seems to work out extremely well."

Penguins --
There's been little to knock recently in Pittsburgh, but as good as they are now, they've been winning with little offensive contribution from Evgeni Malkin. He has 4 goals and 6 assists in the last 10 games, but 3 goals came in the last meeting with the Thrashers and 3 assists came in one game against the Hurricanes.

However, coach Dan Bylsma said he sees Malkin contributing in other ways.

"I think we'd all like to see (Malkin) put up bigger numbers and have the type of season he had two seasons ago, but I see him doing a lot of things better in his game this year than last year," Bylsma said. "The consistency in which he works on the defensive side of the puck is much better. He's a guy we count on in the defensive zone to play against other teams' good players right now as a centerman."

Who's Hot --
Byfuglien has 2 goals and 6 points in his last two games, and has at least a point in six straight. His 27 points not only lead all defenseman, it puts him ninth in the League among all skaters. … As hot as Crosby has been, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury also has been very good. He's won six in a row, and is unbeaten in regulation in nine straight. He's allowed just 15 goals in those nine games.

Injury Report --
Thrashers forward Freddy Modin is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury suffered the last time these teams met. … Penguins right wing Arron Asham (illness) is questionable for Thursday's game. Center Mike Comrie (lower-body injury) likely will be out.

Stat Pack -- Byfuglien's clutch play seems to defy positions or teams. He led all playoff scorers last season with 5 game-winning goals while playing forward for the Blackhawks. This season, as a defenseman for the Thrashers he leads the League with 5 game-winning goals. The single-season record for game-winning goals by a defenseman is 7, which has been done four times, most recently by Dion Phaneuf in 2005-06.

Puck Drop -- Crosby's remarkable play in November earned him the NHL's first star of the month award. In 14 November games, he had 12 goals and 14 assists and, after going scoreless in his first game of the month, had at least a point in the next 13 games.

Could Crosby be playing the best hockey of his already illustrious career?

"It's so tough because he's great all the time, but maybe in the regular season, yes (he's never been better), because he's just been unbelievable," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang told

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