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Penguins hold off Thrashers 3-2

by John Manasso /

ATLANTA -- With the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar on Pittsburgh's power-play unit, defenseman Martin Skoula had no idea he'd be the one to end the Penguins' dreadful stretch of play with the man advantage.

But Skoula scored his first of two goals on the night at 7:38 of the first period on Pittsburgh's first power play to help the Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers before 17,588 fans at Philips Arena.

Skoula, in his 10th NHL season, has scored just 44 career goals and has never had more than 10 in a season. But his seeing-eye goal from the point 7:38 into the game on Pittsburgh's first of three power plays was a welcome treat for a unit that had been 2-for-41 in its previous 10 games.

He added his second of the night at 7:34 of the second period.

"I don't think I've ever had two goals in one game," he said. "I might have. I'm not sure. But it's nice to score like that."

Skoula did not even dress for the Penguins' first nine games of the season, but has become a regular because Pittsburgh's defense has been decimated by injuries, averaging nearly 19 minutes while playing the last 14 games for a defense that at one point this week was without five of its six regulars. Alex Goligoski, Jay McKee and Kris Letang all were out again on Saturday; Gonchar played in his second game after missing 12 with an injury and Brooks Orpik returned to the lineup against Atlanta after missing the last four.

The Penguins, who suffered through a four-game losing streak recently amid a spate of injuries, won for the third time in four games and reclaimed sole ownership of first place in the Atlantic Division with 30 points.

"I think for the first 40 minutes that was probably our best game -- even more than 40 minutes -- of getting [to the offensive zone] with numbers, getting there with speed and when we didn't have it getting [the puck] behind them," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, whose team led 3-0 after two periods. "We went and got it and got pucks and started in the offensive zone. You could tell the guys were determined we were going to play that way tonight."

The loss snapped a 4-0-1 streak for Atlanta, which got close in the third period with two goals in the final 10:20 of regulation. The Thrashers, who entered the game with the NHL's second-best power play, failed on all three chances, making them 1-for-10 in the last two games.

After Skoula's first-period power-play goal put the Penguins in front, he doubled the lead when he took Matt Cooke's cross-ice pass off the right-wing boards, skated to the top of the circle and blasted a shot that beat Johan Hedberg to the blocker side.

Maxime Talbot, playing in just his second game of the season after offseason shoulder surgery, missed a chance to make it 4-0 when his attempt on a penalty shot went wide of the net.

Atlanta's chances for a comeback took a hit at 6:52 of the third period when leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk received 19 minutes in penalties, ending his night. He got five minutes for fighting with Matt Cooke, four minutes for an instigating a fight while wearing a visor and a 10-minute misconduct.

Thrashers coach John Anderson accused Cooke of slew-footing Kovalchuk and said he didn't agree with the penalties.

"When we lose Kovalchuk out of our lineup, when we're down a couple of goals, of course that hinders us," he said. "But we competed very hard right until the end, tried a few things to get back into the game, got close but in the end that doesn't count."

Despite playing shorthanded, Atlanta got on the board when Thorburn scored a shorthanded goal at 9:40, cashing in a 2-on-1 break after Malkin broke his stick. Afinogenov made it 3-2 with 18 seconds left by scoring with Hedberg on the bench for an extra attacker, but could not complete the comeback.

Afinogenov, signed on tryout during training camp, has scored goals in five straight games for six in that span and nine on the season.

Perhaps the play of the game was a goal that Afinogenov did not score. With 1:11 left in the second period, Afinogenov sped down the right side on a partial breakaway and put a backhander on Fleury -- who whipped up his glove hand to catch it in an exaggerated sliding motion for the flashiest of his 31 saves.

"Fleury made some big saves and we hit a few posts," Hedberg said. "This is a game of margins. Some nights you have them and some you don't."

Bylsma was delighted with the way Fleury rebounded after being pulled during Thursday's 6-2 loss at Ottawa.

"He enjoyed the glove save on Afinogenov, that's for sure," Bylsma said. "He was solid and aggressive and controlling rebounds. And I thought he was jumping out of the net to play pucks when they rimmed it in. He played a lot of pucks tonight, played them very well. He looked sharp in a lot of areas tonight. And there were times we needed him. He made some big saves."

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