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Pittsburgh vs. Atlanta Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (37-26-8-82) vs. Atlanta Thrashers (29-35-6-62)

Where: Mellon Arena
Tuesday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
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 3-0-0. The Penguins triumphed in the only previous meeting at Mellon Arena, 3-1, on Jan. 6. Pittsburgh finished 2-0-0 at Philips Arena this season with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory Nov. 20 and a 6-3 win Dec. 18.



  Pens vs. Thrashers 1/6

Moose Hunting: The Thrashers are the second-hottest team in the league right now (only Pittsburgh is has a better record in the last 10 games). The biggest reason for Atlanta's success has been the play of their netminders, Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg. The "Moose" will make his first start at Mellon Arena since leaving the Penguins and will be the key to Atlanta's success in the game.
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. It’s been a tough year for the Thrashers and they’ve experienced many growing pains with the young lineup. However, the team appears to have turned a corner in its progress. The Thrashers are riding a franchise-record six-game winning streak and have a 10-3-1 mark in their last 14 games. In fact, in the last 10 games only Pittsburgh (8-0-2) has been better than Atlanta (8-2-0) in the entire NHL. It will be a matchup between the two hottest teams in the league.
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 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.

Waddell was very busy leading up to the trade deadline. The Thrashers then dealt Williams to Columbus in exchange for Clay Wilson and a sixth-round pick. He shipped Mathieu Schneider to Montreal for two draft picks. Waddell traded Niclas Havelid and Myles Stoesz to New Jersey for Anssi Salmela. Lastly, the Thrashers sent Christensen to Anaheim for Eric O’Dell.
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 78 points on 36 goals and 42 assists. Kovalchuk is suffering from an upper body injury and will not play against Pittsburgh.

In the early part of the season, the Thrashers’ best line has been the trio of Vyacheslav Kozlov, Todd White and Bryan Little. The three men rank 2, 3 and 4 on the team in scoring. White is second in points with 61 (19G-42A). Kozlov is third with 59 points on 19 goals and 40 assists. Little is developing into a top-tier scoring in his second year in the league. He’s second on the team with 29 goals, while compiling 47 points on the year.

Colby Armstrong, Brett Sterling and Rich Peverley skate on the second line while the third line consists of Colin Stuart, 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 3.33 goals per game this season, the second-worst mark 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 missed 25 games due to the injury.  

Ron Hainsey, Columbus’ 13th pick in 2000, anchors Atlanta’s blue line. Hainsey is an offensive-minded defenseman that likes to roam and join the rush. He is excelling under coach Anderson’s free-flowing style. Hainsey already has 35 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. 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. But through it all, Lehtonen is the club’s all-time leader in games played (200), wins (93), shutouts (14) and save percentage (.913). Lehtonen made 49 saves on 50 shots against the Washington Capitals Monday night to lead Atlanta to a 5-1 victory. He’s caught fire lately and has been the biggest reason for the Thrashers’ recent surge. In his last five games, Lehtonen is 5-0-0 with a 1.18 goals against average, .966 save percentage and two shutouts.

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 31-28-8 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.
Bryan Little has broken out of his shell in a big way. Little was the 12th-overall selection by the Thrashers in the 2006 draft. He broke into the league last year at 20 years old, playing 48 games, and tallying 16 points (6G-10A).

There has been no sophomore slump for Little. The Edmonton native has established himself as a legitimate scoring threat with 29 goals on the season already. He’s also chipped in 11 power-play goals and 47 points on the season. The future is bright for Little and he’s already shining. 
“Hopefully our coaching staff and this team as we are now takes this and starts to improve with it and run with it and not say that’s enough. We have to get that thought of winning all the time and daresay become a championship team.”
- Thrashers head coach John Anderson to the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the team’s six-game winning streak

Vyacheslav Kozlov tied a franchise record by playing in his 189th consecutive game.

Author: Sam Kasan

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