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Pittsburgh vs. Atlanta Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (19-17-4-42) vs. Atlanta Thrashers (13-22-5-31)

Where: Mellon Arena
When: Tuesday, January 6, 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 2-0-0. Pittsburgh is 2-0-0 at Philips Arena this season with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory Nov. 20 and 6-3 win Dec. 18. This will be the first meeting between the two teams at Mellon Arena.



Pens vs. Thrashers 12/18
Play with Desperation: The Penguins showed an early season knack for playing well with their backs against a wall. Pittsburgh notched a number of come-from-behind victories in game's that seemed over. Pittsburgh needs to harness that same desperate mentality to break out of its losing ways. With the Penguins now sitting on the outside of the playoffs, the time for talking is over. Pittsburgh must make something happen now.

Shoot: One promising sign from Pittsburgh's loss to New York on Monday was its willingness to get the rubber on net. The Thrashers have given up more goals than any team in the league and have the worst-ranked defense. If the Penguins can generate a lot of opportunities, chances are they'll bury a few.
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 last season. Atlanta had a rough start to 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. However, the Thrashers followed that winning streak with a 2-9-2 stretch and have hovered near the Eastern Conference basement since.
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 offensive defenseman Ron Hainsey and forwards Jason Williams and Marty Reasoner.
Any success for Atlanta will depend 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 39 points on 13 goals and 26 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. A partially separated shoulder sidelined him this season but appears fully recovered. He notched a point in three of the last four games.

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. Kozlov is second in points with 36 (16G-20A). White is third with 35 points. Little, the team’s top pick in 2006, is fourth with 32 points and has a team-high 19 goals. However, he recently suffered a rib contusion. X-rays revealed “some bruising, but no broken ribs,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Little is listed as day-to-day. Former Penguins Colby Armstrong will resume Little’s spot on the second line during his absence. Joey Crabb will be elevated to the checking line with veteran Marty Reasoner and Eric Perrin.
Atlanta allowed the most goals (272) in the NHL last season. The Thrashers are on track to notch the same distinction by allowing 3.65 goals per game this season, the 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 action after missing 25 games but wasn’t in game shape. He’s been sent to the minors on a conditioning assignment.

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 has 20 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 21 following the lockout. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, although he hasn’t had much help over the past three years in front of him. But through it all, Lehtonen is the club’s all-time leader in games played (173), wins (79), shutouts (11) and save percentage (.912). He was sidelined for a month and a half with a back injury but has made a full recovery.

Former Penguin Johan “The Moose” Hedberg, a couple years removed from his magical playoff run in Pittsburgh, has found himself a home in Atlanta as the team’s backup goaltender. In the past three seasons with the Thrashers, Hedberg has a 29-26-8 record in spot duty. Ondrej Pavelec is 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 got a lot of playing time when Lehtonen was down.
Kari Lehtonen has all the talent and tools to be a top-five NHL netminder. He’s got incredible size at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and takes up a lot of space. Combine that with Lehtonen’s flexibility, agility and reflexes and it’s easy to see why the Thrashers grabbed him with the second-overall pick in the 2002 draft. The Helsinki, Finland native got his first taste of the NHL when he made four appearances at 19 years old. He teased fans with a spectacular effort, going 4-0-0 while giving up only five goals and recording a .953 save percentage.

Two years ago it looked like Lehtonen was on the verge on becoming one of the NHL’s finest goaltenders. He led Atlanta to a division title while going 34-24-9 with a 2.79 goals against average and .912 save percentage, impressive numbers for playing goal in Atlanta’s run-and-gun system. But last season Lehtonen and the Thrashers took a step backwards. The goaltender battled through injuries and never regained the form he had earlier in his career. Management appears to be running out of patience with his progress. The Thrashers signed Lehtonen to a one-year deal this past offseason and his future in Atlanta after this season is unknown. Still, Lehtonen has played very well against the Penguins with a 6-1-2 record, 2.47 GAA and .924 save percentage.
“Our give-a-(care) level was like at zero. After we have a big win against Vancouver, against a real good hockey team, we throw that game. I’ve got to question whether anybody cares in that locker room. That’s a joke.”
Thrashers head coach John Anderson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution following Atlanta’s 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Pittsburgh is riding a five-game losing streak. The Penguins haven’t gone five games without earning a point since 2006.

Author: Sam Kasan

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