ATLANTA -- Through the first 17 games of the season, Pittsburgh's goalies had split the minutes almost exactly, with Marc-Andre Fleury holding less than a four-minute advantage over back-up Brent Johnson.
That's partly because Johnson has been excellent, posting a 2.11 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, but also because Fleury, who backstopped the Penguins to their 2009 Stanley Cup, has been so shaky, winning just one of his first eight starts.
So one night after Fleury won on the road, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma elected to start him for the second time in two nights. It worked. Fleury made two fantastic first-period saves as part of his overall total of 31 to keep Pittsburgh in a game that they eventually won 4-2 over Atlanta, helped by three goals from Evgeni Malkin, before 16,710 at Philips Arena.
"Marc played extremely well in Tampa Bay," Bylsma said of Fleury's 15-save 5-1 win on Friday. "Not only did he play well, but he was strong and confident in his positioning and his saves were real strong on rebounds. You know, Marc's a guy who's going to carry the load for us. He's a big part of our success and getting him an opportunity to get back in here tonight was the perfect chance for him to get two (wins).
"Flower's got two good games under his belt now. That's a good thing."
It was the third win in four games for the Penguins who finally climbed over .500 at 9-8-1. Surprisingly, Fleury entered Saturday with an .860 save percentage. In his four starts prior to Friday's win, he had lost three and was pulled after seven minutes in a no-decision in which he allowed two goals on five shots against Phoenix.
After Saturday's win, he was relaxed and smiling. He said he was disappointed to allow a goal so quickly into the game – low-scoring defenseman Brent Sopel beat Fleury with a point showing, owing to a screen by Thrashers wing Eric Boulton just 2:41 in – but he prevented Atlanta from building on its lead.
"It was good," Fleury said. "If I could make the next saves, you know, and it was just fun to do. We kept it at one-nothing and we got back in it."
Fleury went post-to-post to stop Dustin Byfuglien with his left pad after Byfuglien pinched in and took a cross-ice pass from Rich Peverley on the left wing less than a minute after Atlanta's goal. Then he denied Andrew Ladd's shorthanded bid, as Ladd skated in alone on net but Fleury closed off the five-hole with less than eight minutes left in the period.
"I am just very frustrated after that because I thought we played really hard," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "We gave them all we could give them. We created our chances and we just gave up a couple of bad goals."
Malkin tied the game at 1-1 at 13:22 of the second period on a play started by a bad Thrashers' breakout attempt. Zach Bogosian tried to bang the puck through two Pittsburgh forecheckers in the Thrashers' zone, but Pittsburgh picked up the turnover and counterattacked. Arron Asham stopped at the blue line and fed Malkin streaking down the right side, then Malkin let loose a wicked slap shot from a steep angle that beat Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec (24 saves) between the pads.
Crosby reached out with his stick to deflect Deryk Engelland's point shot to put Pittsburgh up 2-1 at 2:41 of the third. Ten seconds later, Alex Burmistrov took a boarding penalty in the offensive zone and Pittsburgh made Atlanta pay. Malkin earned the game-winner by tapping in a rebound off the backboards of Paul Martin's hard shot from the point at 4:42 of the third.
The goal was significant for a Penguins' power play that entered 21st in the League.
"This was my first power play (goal) of the season and I hope it's not my last," Malkin said. "We moved the puck well tonight."
Atlanta made it 3-2 with 9:15 left in regulation when Evander Kane retrieved a dump behind Pittsburgh's net and quickly backhanded the puck in front. Niclas Bergfors earned his fifth goal by putting it past Fleury before the goalie could get set.
But Malkin, who seconds earlier had taken a hard, open-ice hip check in the neutral zone from Thrashers defenseman Tobias Enstrom to deny him the hat trick, got his third goal with 62 seconds left in regulation. It was the sixth regular-season hat trick of his career.