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Pittsburgh vs. Atlanta Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (11-4-3-25) at Atlanta Thrashers (7-8-2-16)

Where: Philips Arena
When: Thursday, November 20, 7:00 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428 and DirecTV 659.
*View FSN's HD Broadcast Schedule here



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Stay Disciplined: The Atlanta Thrashers play a wide-open offensive system built on quick transitions and puck movement. The Penguins will love the end-to-end action – as that style suits Pittsburgh’s young, talented players. However, when you play that way you can be exposed defensively. Pittsburgh must remain disciplined defensively and not get caught cheating too much in the offensive zone or Atlanta will burn them.

: The Thrashers defense likes to cheat, join the rush and get deep on plays – particularly Ron Hainsey. If the Penguins remain strong in their own zone then they will create turnovers. With solid transition passes, those turnovers can be transformed into opportunities for odd-man rushes. On the flip side, if Pittsburgh turns the puck over, they’d better transition quickly into a defensive posture before the Thrashers use their speed to create their own scoring chances.
Two seasons ago, the Thrashers were on top of the world. Atlanta went 43-28-11 for 97 points en route to winning the Southeast Division. However, the Thrashers hit rock bottom last season. Head coach Bob Hartley was fired after six games and replaced by general manager Don Waddell. The team imploded, dropping 21 points in the standings and traded away its top player – Marian Hossa. Atlanta committed to a youth movement to build around its cornerstone Ilya Kovalchuk.

Waddell tapped John Anderson as the Thrashers new head coach. Anderson is a players-coach who had success the past 13 years with the Chicago Wolves, Atlanta’s top minor-league affiliate. Anderson has won five championships during that stretch, including his latest last season. It’s been a Tale of Two Seasons for Anderson and company this year. Atlanta had a rough start to start the season, going 2-7-2 out of the gate. It looked like the beginning of a long season until they ran off five consecutive wins. The winning streak was snapped on Sunday at Philadelphia, but the team is playing with a new sense of confidence.
The Thrashers got a new look to the lineup last season with help from the Penguins. With the playoffs out of the picture and contract-extension talks stalled with Hossa, the Thrashers decided to move the best player on the block. They shipped away Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick (Daultan Leveille). The Thrashers let veterans Bobby Holik, Mark Recchi and Jason Krog walk in free agency. With extra roster positions, Waddell made a few offseason pick ups – signing defenseman Ron Hainsey and forwards Jason Williams and Marty Reasoner.
Any success for Atlanta depends upon the play of Ilya Kovalchuk. He is one of the best finishers in the game and tied a career high with 52 goals last season, second most in the league. Kovalchuk has had tremendous goal production during his six seasons in the NHL (29, 38, 41, 52, 42, 52) and, at 25 years old, is entering the prime of his career. Kovalchuk plays alongside Williams and Christensen. Williams was an underrated offseason acquisition. He’s a versatile forward that can play wing and center. Though he’s been plagued by injuries in recent years, he still is a great playmaker when healthy and should see his numbers increase playing on a line with Kovalchuk. Christensen had a breakout two seasons ago with the Penguins with 33 points and excels in shootouts.

In the early going this season, the Thrashers second line (Vyacheslav Kozlov-Todd White-Bryan Little) is playing lights out. All three men are in the top four in scoring on the team. Little, the team’s top pick in 2006, is the team’s leading scorer with 17 points (9G-8A) and Kozlov’s 10 goals are a team best. White looks rejuvenated with 15 points (4G-11A) in 17 games. Veteran Marty Reasoner centers the third line between Armstrong and Chris Thorburn. Eric Boulton, Jim Slater and Eric Perrin round out the forwards.
Atlanta allowed the most goals (272) in the NHL last season. The Thrashers are on track to notch the same distinction by allowing 3.59 goals per game this season – again, most in the league. The defensive corps suffered a huge blow when Zach Bogosian, the team’s third-overall pick in June, broke his leg at the end of October. He was the most impressive prospect in the draft workouts and will have a lengthy rehab.

Ron Hainsey, Columbus’ 13th pick in 2000, will anchor Atlanta’s blue line. Hainsey is an offensive-minded defenseman that likes to roam and join the rush. He should excel under coach Anderson’s free-flowing style. Hainsey already has 12 points this season. Tobias Enstrom, an eighth-round pick in 2003, had a breakout rookie campaign last year. He played in all 82 games and recorded 38 points with 33 assists. Slovakian Boris Valabik is a big, physical defenseman who stands 6-foor-7 and is 240 pounds. The Thrashers traded for veteran defenseman Mathieu Schneider near the start of the season to provide some veteran stability and leadership, though he has been sidelined recently with a hip injury. Garnet Exelby and Nathan Oystrick round out the group.
Kari Lehtonen was supposed to be the next great goaltender in the NHL when Atlanta selected him second overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He saw his first action at 19 years old and was dubbed the Thrashers starter at 20. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, although he hasn’t had much help over the past three years. But through it all, Lehtonen is the club’s all-time leader in games played (167), wins (77), shutouts (11) and save percentage (.912). The Thrashers signed Lehtonen to a one-year deal in the offseason and the Finnish goaltender will have to prove he's worth a long-term contract. He has been sidelined since Nov. 1 with a back injury and will not see action against the Penguins.

However, former Penguin Johan “The Moose” Hedberg will be in the Thrashers lineup. A couple years removed from his magical playoff run in Pittsburgh, he’s found himself a home in Atlanta as the team’s backup goaltender. In the past three seasons with the Thrashers, Hedberg has a 26-22-5 record in spot duty. The Penguins may also see Ondrej Pavelec in net. He's a 20-year-old prospect that the organization is high on. Pavelec went 33-15-4 with a 2.77 GAA and a .911 save percentage with the Wolves and led Anderson’s team to the Calder Cup. He’s familiar with the head coach and the system, and should get a long look with Lehtonen down.
Pittsburgh better be aware of where Ilya Kovalchuk is on the ice at all times. He has been a Penguin killer in his career, netting 30 points (17G-13A) in 23 games against Pittsburgh – including nine power-play goals. He’s fast, powerful on his skates and has a wicked-hard slap shot. He rotates positions on the power play, sometimes playing the point and other times playing down low. Kovalchuk will shoot from anywhere on the ice and has proven that he can score from anywhere. Even when he didn't have a ton of talented players around him, Kovalchuk still produced great seasons. Kovalchuk's has matured a lot from that fist-pumping showoff of his early years. He's the face and future of the Atlanta franchise. It should be only a matter of time before he is named captain.
“They changed their coach and have a new system. It’s probably offensive-minded, the way we play.”
- Pascal Dupuis on the Thrashers
1: The number of games Pittsburgh has won in Atlanta since the lockout ended. The Penguins are 1-3-2 in six games at Philips Arena during that span.

Author: Sam Kasan

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