The Pittsburgh Penguins survived the first few weeks without their No. 1 goaltender just fine, but recently they've looked like they need Marc-Andre Fleury back.
They're about to find out just how much they missed him.
Fleury will return Thursday to make his first start in more than a month, and the Penguins will try to shake their recent slump when they take on the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena.
Fleury was originally supposed to miss a few days when he suffered a groin injury in a Nov. 15 win over Buffalo. Instead, the goalie who helped carry Pittsburgh (16-10-4) to the Stanley Cup finals last season wound up missing 13 games.
The Penguins started out well enough with Fleury sidelined, going 4-2-2 as backup Dany Sabourin posted a 1.96 goals-against average in seven starts. Sabourin, though, is 0-4-0 with a 4.04 GAA in his last four starts, and Pittsburgh has lost four of its past five games in regulation.
Sabourin's worst game yet came Saturday. With Fleury available but not starting, coach Michel Therrien gave Sabourin another chance, and he allowed six goals on 27 shots in a 6-3 loss at Philadelphia.
Therrien wasn't pleased with Sabourin - or anyone else.
"We were not good in every department," he said. "The energy was not there and a lot of times when the energy is not there, the concentration is not there."
Fleury was 4-0-0 in his last five games prior to being injured, although he wasn't exactly dominant during that stretch, posting a 4.04 GAA.
"I'm looking forward to getting back in there," said Fleury, 3-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA in his last four starts against Atlanta. "It's been a while now. It's always frustrating when you're out. I wanted to get back as quick as I could."
Aside from a nine-goal outburst against the New York Islanders in their lone win over the past two weeks, the Penguins have struggled to score. Pittsburgh has totaled nine goals in its last four losses, and Sidney Crosby hasn't scored one in seven games this month.
Perhaps Crosby will regain his touch against Atlanta (10-16-4). Crosby - second in the league with 44 points behind teammate Evgeni Malkin - has four goals and three assists in his last three games against the Thrashers.
Atlanta has given up more goals than any team except the Islanders, but is coming off one of its most impressive defensive efforts of the season.
The Thrashers had allowed at least two goals in 25 consecutive games heading into Ottawa on Tuesday night. However, Atlanta gave up only a late third-period goal, well after Colby Armstrong had scored twice in 31 seconds to help lift the Thrashers to a 4-1 win.
Ondrej Pavelec earned his first victory since Nov. 6 and narrowly missed recording his first shutout, allowing a goal with just over a minute left.
"He played great for us and it was a little bit of a screen shot, a good play by them, but too bad we couldn't preserve that shutout for him," said Armstrong, a former Penguin. "The big thing is we got the two points."
Pavelec was in goal Nov. 20 versus Pittsburgh when Petr Sykora's power-play goal late in the third gave the Penguins a 3-2 win.
That was Pittsburgh's lone victory in its last four trips to Philips Arena.