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High-scoring Thrashers look to finally solve Penguins

by Matthew Mankiewich /

PENGUINS (14-8-0) at THRASHERS (10-6-2)

Last 10 -- Pittsburgh 4-6-0; Atlanta 6-3-1

Season series --
It's the first meeting of 2009-10 for the two clubs, as the Thrashers try to put an end to more than a year of Penguin dominance. Not only did the Pens sweep the four-game season series last year rather convincingly, but they hold a five-game winning streak over the Thrashers as well.

Big story --
Things are a little different now. The Thrashers team that the Pens so easily swept away last season is a lot stronger. It's reasonable to forget a 21-10 scoring advantage over those last five Pittsburgh wins when you look at Atlanta's recent offensive numbers. At 3.61 goals per game, the Thrashers are second in the NHL to the Capitals. They haven't scored fewer than three goals in a game since Oct. 10, and lit the lamp 18 times in a four-game winning streak that ended with a shootout loss to the Bruins on Thursday night.

The Penguins are slowly getting back on track, with home wins over the Bruins and Ducks before getting thumped in Ottawa by a 6-2 score on Thursday, their fourth straight road loss.

Team scope:

Penguins -- Penguins fans have just about heard it all when it comes to their injury-plagued team, but the good news has started to trickle in. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar returned Thursday from a broken wrist that kept him out of the lineup for 12 games and forward Max Talbot, hero of Game 7 of the Finals last year, played for the first time since offseason shoulder surgery.

Evgeni Malkin is still trying to get back into top form, scoring his first goal Thursday since before his injury and ending a team streak of 522 minutes, 25 seconds without scoring an away power-play goal. His presence still matters, though, as his team scored 11 times in the Boston and Anaheim wins, but were only able to score 12 times in the seven games he was out.

Malkin's contributions are significant, of course, but the Pens' sputtering power play may get a needed tune-up with Gonchar's return. It was 4-for-51 (7.8 percent) in the 12 games he missed.

"Sergei, we asked him to play a lot of minutes tonight," coach Dan Bylsma said after Thursday's game. "It's tough for him to get back in there but definitely our power play's a bit more dangerous with him out there."

Thrashers -- Reasons abound why the Thrashers are doing so much better than they did at this point last year, but one might be the way they've acclimated themselves to coach John Anderson's system.

"It's one thing [for players] to do what the coaches say, but it's another to do it in a natural way, so that one- or two-tenths of a second can mean the difference between scoring a goal or blocking a shot," Anderson said Thursday morning to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Little things like that. ... It takes a little bit of time to get hitting on all cylinders. I guess it's a lesson I learned last year as a rookie coach."

One player who was not in Atlanta last year might get some credit as well. Maxim Afinogenov has turned his career around in Thrasher blue, his 19 points good for third on the team, not to mention his eight points (five goals, three assists) in his last four contests.

"I've just tried to work hard on the ice and my partners are helping me," said the 30-year-old Moscow native to the Thrashers' official Web site. "Obviously playing with Kovy and Kozzie (he's also played with Nik Antropov), has been good, they're passing the puck and creating something. I've gotten some easy goals. It's nice to play with those guys. The better they're playing the better I'm playing, too."

Who's hot -- Afinogenov we know about, but Ilya Kovalchuk is second on the Thrashers in points despite playing only 12 games so far, largely because of the tear he's been on since recovering from a foot injury. In four games, he has four goals and seven assists for a total of 11 points. Entering Friday's action, his 13 goals put him only two behind League leaders Alex Ovechkin and Marian Gaborik with 15 each. To compare, Sidney Crosby has the same number of points compiled over 22 games.

Injury report -- For the Penguins, the situation is improving with Gonchar and Talbot back, and getting better still with defenseman Brooks Orpik (lower body) cleared for full contact in practice and defenseman Kris Letang (shoulder contusion) back on the ice without contact. Center Tyler Kennedy (groin) is still expected to return next week. Mark Eaton (back spasms) is not expected to miss any time, while Alex Goligoski and Chris Kunitz (both lower body) remain on IR. The Thrashers are mostly healthy, save for goalie Kari Lehtonen (back), who is still weeks away.

Stat Pack -- As turgid as the power play has been for the Penguins, it enjoyed some success against the Thrashers last year at 8-for-20 (40 percent). Malkin collected a point on seven of those goals. Kovalchuk has three goals and two assists in his last 10 games versus Pittsburgh. Thrashers scheduled starting goalie Johan Hedberg is seventh in the NHL with a .923 save percentage.

Puck Drop -- "All [a win against Pittsburgh] does is build confidence through the year. Take the last game, to lose to Boston, it's like we haven't beaten them in [now eight of the past nine games] -- even before I was here. We have to get over that mental barrier, like 'Oh, it's the Penguins' or 'Oh, it's the Bruins.' We have to go 'OK, they are a good hockey team, but so are we.' That’s the mentality that we have to have. Not 'There's Crosby, there's Malkin.' Just play. Feel good that if we do the things we want to do, we can win the hockey game." -- Thrashers coach John Anderson to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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