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Stoppers save the day

by Brian Compton

Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the starting lineup and helped the Penguins to a 3-2 shootout win against Atlanta.
Watch Thrashers-Penguins highlights
Some random thoughts before the Florida Panthers buy Craig Anderson a nice steak dinner:

A Good Problem To Have -- Let the goaltending controversy in Pittsburgh begin.

After watching Ty Conklin perform at a remarkable level during the past few months, Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the starting lineup Sunday and promptly guided the Penguins to a 3-2 shootout win against the Atlanta Thrashers.

Fleury made 31 saves through regulation and overtime, and then went 3-for-3 in the shootout in his first start since Dec. 6. Not bad for someone who missed nearly three months due to a sprained ankle.

''I was a little nervous in overtime, but we still played good and it was fun to get the win,'' Fleury said. ''It was good to get that first game behind me.''

It certainly will be interesting to see how Pens coach Michel Therrien handles his goaltending situation down the stretch as Pittsburgh fights for an Atlantic Division title. Sunday's win put the Pens back in first place atop the idle New Jersey Devils.

“Marc-Andre was outstanding in the shootout … there's no doubt,” Therrien said. “You could tell early in the game he was nervous a little bit. The more the game went on, he was solid. It's a good sign for him, and for us, too.”

A reporter asked Therrien if Fleury would get the starting nod Tuesday night, when the Penguins begin a three-game road trip at Tampa Bay. Clearly the Pens coach didn't want to get into such a discussion, but he handled it like a pro.

After all, there are worse problems to have in life.

“We'll talk about it,” Therrien said. “He played well. I've got to sit down with the staff and watch the game, and we'll make a decision. You've got to make sure you keep everyone sharp. Don't forget, Ty gave us some great hockey. He's one of the reasons why we're in first place in our division today. I've always got the philosophy to go with performance and hot hands. When the guy's playing well, we're going to use him.”


Big Valley -- Steve Valiquette did it again Sunday.

The 6-foot-6 netminder beat the Philadelphia Flyers for the third time this season, as he made 17 saves in relief of Henrik Lundqvist in a 5-4 shootout win at Madison Square Garden.

Valiquette was perfect in the shootout, stopping Kimmo Timonen and Jeff Carter as the Rangers improved to 7-0-2 during their last nine games. It was Valiquette's first win on home ice this season.

“I went through (a shootout) last year, when I beat St. Louis, and I was really happy because it was in MSG,” Valiquette said. “It's always nice to be a hockey player and have an MSG moment.”

Valiquette was asked to go between the pipes after Lundqvist had a rare off night, allowing three goals on eight shots. Valiquette relieved the Rangers' No. 1 goaltender at the start of the second period.

"When I went in it wasn't foreign to me. I am always prepared to play when I come to the rink," Valiquette said.

Rangers coach Tom Renney was thrilled for Valiquette, whose appearance on Sunday was just his 12th game this season.

“He's a National Hockey League goaltender in every sense of the word,” Renney said. “Henrik's our No. 1 guy, there's no two ways about that. But he (Valiquette) has established himself as a very good backup goaltender in this League. I think he could do that with any team in it.”


Oh-For-53 -- Watching Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Florida Panthers, you had the feeling the New York Islanders could have played another 60 minutes without a goal.

The Isles peppered Florida backup goalie Craig Anderson with 53 shots – 29 of them came in the second period, a franchise record – but New York failed to find the back of the net in a loss that hindered its chances of returning to the postseason. The Isles now are five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

''I think the most frustrating thing is letting four points slip away this weekend,'' Isles center Mike Comrie said after back-to-back home losses to Philadelphia and Florida. ''In similar games, we get a lot of shots, but I think we make the goalies look better than they are. We've got to get quality shots and get traffic in front of the net. Everybody's got to step up.''

Defense First – Everyone knows about the young talent the Chicago Blackhawks possess up front.

On Sunday, though, coach Denis Savard's club was all about defense.

Chicago held the Vancouver to a season-low 10 shots on goal in an impressive 4-1 win against the Canucks at the United Center. The victory pulled Chicago within six points of Vancouver, which is locked in a three-way tie for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference.

“It was a big game and we stepped up,” Savard said. “We stuck to our game plan. There were barely any turnovers and we finished our checks.”


Meanwhile, the Canucks were scratching their heads afterward, wondering how they mustered only two shots in the first period and 10 over 60 minutes. The loss was their third straight (0-1-2).

“Ten shots on goal? That's embarrassing,” Vancouver captain Markus Naslund said.

Roberto Luongo agreed. The Canucks' No. 1 goaltender was pulled by coach Alain Vigneault with 10:11 left in the third period.

“Maybe it's best that we just forget about his one,” Luongo said.

A Reason To Smile -- Finally, the Detroit Red Wings have something to be happy about.

The Wings won Sunday for just the second time in 12 games, as Dominik Hasek made 22 saves against his former team in a 4-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres.

“We were waiting for a game like this,” Hasek said. “We weren't playing bad; we just couldn't score the goals. Today, we finally scored a few goals and played well defensively. Overall, I think Buffalo didn't have too many chances.”

The line of Kirk Maltby, Dallas Drake and Kris Draper contributed with two goals and an assist, which took some pressure off the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, who was held off the score sheet.

“We need to contribute more to help out,” said Maltby, who scored for the first time since Oct. 26. “We've been finding ways to lose games, and we weren't getting the job done. Tonight, we got the lead and finished strong.”

Detroit begins a five-game homestand Wednesday night against the St. Louis Blues. Sunday's win extended the Wings' Western Conference lead to five points.

"It hasn't been going our way lately," said Detroit forward Valtteri Filppula, who had a goal and assist Sunday. "We haven't played that bad lately, but we haven't been able to win. It's been a lot of close games. It was a really important win for us. It's good to win again."

Wild Win Another Close One -- Marian Gaborik is confident the Minnesota Wild will have an edge on most teams once the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway next month.

Martin Skoula's goal with 1:15 remaining in overtime Sunday gave the Wild their 21st one-goal victory of the season, a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

''This is a good way to learn how to play under pressure a little bit and when there's a tight game,'' said Gaborik, who scored his 34th goal of the season Sunday. ''We need to do a big push, and I think this is going to be a good learning experience for us to go to playoffs.''


Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom believes the reason Sunday's game was so close was due to the amount of talent the Kings possess. While L.A. is last in the League with 57 points, Backstrom made it sound as if it's only a matter of time before the Kings become a force with which to be reckoned.

"You look at this team and how (the Kings) played today, it's a really great hockey team, a lot of talent, a lot of skill players," Backstrom said. "They made it really tough for us. You look at the standings, and it's hard to believe they are down there."

He Did It Again -- Mathieu Garon loves the shootout.

Garon went 3-for-3 Sunday, leading the Edmonton Oilers to their League-leading 14th shootout win of the season, a 4-3 decision against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Rexall Place.

With the victory, the Oilers (31-30-5) are above the .500 mark for the first time since Oct. 10, when a 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild dropped them to 2-2-0. Garon certainly has helped the Oilers stay afloat, as he's allowed only two goals in 32 chances in the shootout this season.

Only Donald Trump has better numbers.

“It's not how we win, it's how many we win,” Garon said.

Very true.

Sunday's win pulled the Oilers within seven points of a playoff spot with 16 games to play. They finish a five-game homestand Tuesday night with a huge game against the Nashville Predators – one of several teams they're chasing in this playoff race.

"It's big for the team," Oilers rookie Andrew Cogliano said. "It's good for our confidence and it feels like we are finally making progress. Hopefully we can get one more win and sweep this homestand and then keep it going on the road."

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