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Pittsburgh vs. Atlanta Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (16-10-4-36) at Atlanta Thrashers (10-16-4-24)

Where: Philips Arena
When: Thursday, December 18 at 7 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
Season Series: Pittsburgh leads 1-0-0. Pittsburgh is 1-0-0 at Philips Arena this season with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory Nov. 20.



  Pens vs. Thrashers 11/20
Compete: Pittsburgh had some grueling practices this week. Head coach Michel Therrien wants to see his team compete for loose pucks and win battles along the boards. The team did it in practice, now they have to translate that into a game.

Power Play:  Atlanta’s penalty killing ranks dead last in the NHL with a 72.4 percent kill rate. Pittsburgh defeated the Thrashers in the previous meeting with a third-period power-play goal. Even though the Penguins power play has been struggling lately, Atlanta is the perfect opponent to have a breakout game against.
Two seasons ago, the Thrashers were on top of the world. Atlanta went 43-28-11 for 97 points en route to the 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 in the offseason and built 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. 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 Thrashers followed that winning streak with a 3-9-2 stretch. Atlanta has only won twice in its last 10 games, though they are coming off of a 4-1 triumph at Ottawa thanks to Colby Armstrong’s two goals. 
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 Marian Hossa, the Thrashers decided to move the best player on the block. They shipped away Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh for 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 will be dependent 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 leads the team with 31 points on 11 goals and 20 assists. He 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 season two years ago with the Penguins with 33 points and excelled in shootouts. He’s close to returning from a partially separated shoulder, though it is unlikely he will face his former team this Thursday.

In the early part of the season, the Thrashers second line (Vyacheslav Kozlov-Todd White-Bryan Little) was playing lights out. The three men rank 2, 3 and 4 on the team in scoring. White is second with 26 points (9G-17A). Kozlov leads the team with 14 goals and third with 25 points. Little, the team’s top pick in 2006, is fourth with 22 points (11G-11A). Veteran Marty Reasoner centers the third line between Armstrong and recent call-up Colin Stuart. Armstrong netted two goals in the Thrashers previous game, a 4-1 victory at Ottawa.
Atlanta allowed the most goals (272) in the NHL last season. The Thrashers are on track to notch the same distinction by allowing 3.60 goals per game this season, second 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 has worked through a lengthy rehab. The 18-year old returned to practice with the team on Monday but is still two weeks away from game action.

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 18 points this season, leading the defensive corps. 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). He has been sidelined since Nov. 1 with 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 28-25-7 record in spot duty. The Penguins may also see Ondrej Pavelec in net, a 21-year-old prospect that the organization is high on. He 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 will get a lot of playing time with Lehtonen down.
Vyacheslav Kozlov has been the most consistent player in the Thrashers’ lineup. The 36-year-old is on pace for one of the best seasons in his career. He already has 14 goals – most on the team – and 11 assists for 25 points in 30 games. Kozlov is on pace to approach the 70-point mark, something he’s broken five times in his 15-year career. He netted a goal against Pittsburgh in the teams’ previous meeting. Kozlov has been dangerous on the power play. He’s netted six extra-man goals, while five of his last six scores have been on a power play. Kozlov is excelling on a wing with Todd White and Bryan Little. The trio has been the Thrashers’ best line - thanks in large part to the production of Kozlov.
“We haven’t played as well as we can. We know that. We realize that. That’s our focus leading into Thursday’s game. We have to make sure we’re putting our best product on the ice every night.”
- Matt Cooke
43: Points Miroslav Satan has compiled in 32 career games against Atlanta, notching 23 goals and 20 assists.

Author: Sam Kasan

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