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Pittsburgh vs. Atlanta Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (26-16-1-53) vs. Atlanta Thrashers (18-17-6-42)
Where: Mellon Arena

Tuesday, January 5, 7:30 p.m.
Radio: 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, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576.
View FSN's Broadcast Schedule here()

Season Series:
Pittsburgh and Atlanta meet for the second time this season and for the first time at Mellon Arena. The Penguins won the first matchup between the teams, 3-2, on Nov. 21. Martin Skoula led the way in that contest for the Penguins with two goals. Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winner for the Penguins as Marc-Andre Fleury posted the victory with 31 saves.




Last Meeting: Nov. 21, 2009
  PIT 3 - ATL 2 
Game Highlights
AP Recap
Take the Contest Minute by Minute: When you struggle to win games like the Penguins have the past two weeks your luck doesn’t just magically turn around. They are going to have to change their fortunes with hard work and determination. This will require simplifying their game, paying attention to every minute detail and not looking past the current shift.

Crowd Support:
When a team or a player is struggling it is only human nature to eventually allow your failures to affect you mentally. With losses in six of their past seven games the Penguins could be experiencing one of those stretches. Pittsburgh has one of the best fan bases in all of professional sports and the Mellon Arena faithful offering their unwavering support could give the Penguins the jolt of energy they need to reverse this slide.
Atlanta has put together back-to-back 76 point seasons after winning the Southeast Division and clinching the organization’s only playoff berth in 2006-07. A couple of high-scoring offseason additions in Maxim Afinogenov and Nik Antropov has allowed the Thrashers to become one of the highest-scoring teams in the Eastern Conference, as their 132 goals through Monday rank third behind only the Washington Capitals (143) and the Penguins (133). Atlanta currently sits in a tie for 9th place with 42 points, one point behind the eighth-place New York Rangers. They come into this contest having gone only 1-6-3 over their past 10 games.

Head coach John Anderson is in his second campaign with Atlanta after 11 seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. Through one-plus seasons Anderson has a record of 53-58-12 with the Thrashers. During his time in Chicago he led the Wolves to two Calder Cup championships (2008; 2002) and two Turner Cup titles (2000; 1998) back when the Wolves competed in the now defunct International Hockey League.
Atlanta’s offseason additions have transformed the team into an offensive juggernaut through the first half of the 2009-10 season. Leading the charge is free agent addition Nik Antropov, formerly of the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. Antropov scored 59 points (28G-31A) last season in 81 games split between the Leafs and Rangers. He added two goals and an assist in seven playoff contests. Also joining the mix up front is Maxim Afinogenov, a Buffalo Sabres castoff who has regained his scoring touch playing alongside Antropov and fellow Russian Ilya Kovalchuk. Afinogenov ranks second on the Thrashers with 39 points (15G-24A) in 41 games after registering 20 points (6G-14A) in 48 games last season for Buffalo. Afinogenov possesses world-class speed and can make defenders look bad with his array of stickhandling moves. He had two goals and two assists in the Thrashers’ 6-5 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday.

Rookie Evander Kane, the fourth-overall selection in June’s entry draft, has proven that the NHL spotlight is not too bright for an 18-year-old. He ranks fifth on the Thrashers with 10 goals while adding 16 points and a plus-4 rating. Last season, playing for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, Kane racked up 96 points (48G-48A) in 61 games.

Two veteran additions have helped improve the Atlanta defense core, as Pavel Kubina arrived via a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the summer and Christoph Schubert was claimed off waivers from the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 2. Kubina excels at both ends of the rink, having registered 40 points in each of his past two seasons with Toronto. He has hit double digits in goals on five separate occasions, including a career-high 17 for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003-04. This year Kubina has 21 points (4G-17A) and a plus-13 rating in 40 games. Schubert is a physical presence who has had several memorable run-ins with the Penguins, most notably with Gary Roberts during the Penguins and Senators back-to-back playoff meetings in 2007 and ’08.
Atlanta’s surge to the top of the goal-scoring charts should not come as a surprise considering the amount of gifted offensive talent the team has accumulated, led by the always-dangerous Ilya Kovalchuk. One of the game’s best sharpshooters, Kovalchuk ranks fourth in the league with 25 goals through his first 35 games. His 47 points lead the Thrashers and are the eight-best overall. Only Alex Ovechkin and Joe Thornton have averaged more points per game than the 1.34 post by Kovalchuk. Always among the league leaders in shots on goal, Kovalchuk enjoys playing the Penguins, as he has recorded 33 points (18G-15A) in 27 career games against Pittsburgh. Big Nik Antropov was signed in the offseason to play with Kovalchuk and the two clicked almost immediately. Antropov’s 36 points are third-best on the team while his plus-14 rating leads the Thrashers. He has been a Penguins killer with 26 points (12G-14A) in 28 career games, including an assist on Maxim Afinogenov’s goal back on Nov. 21.

Former Nashville Predator Rich Peverley has continued his strong play which began last season after arriving in Atlanta. Centering a line between rookie Evander Kane and former Penguin Colby Armstrong, Peverley has registered 35 points (13G-22A) and ranks second in the NHL with six game-winning goals. Peverley has also proven to be dangerous when the Thrashers are down by a man, as he leads the league with four shorthanded points (1G-3A). In 39 games with the Thrashers last season after being claimed off waivers, Peverley recorded 35 points (13G-22A), including five game-winners.

Armstrong has proven to be a team leader for the Thrashers since they picked him up from the Penguins in the deal which sent Pascal Dupuis and Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh on Feb. 26, 2008. An alternate captain, the 26-year-old Armstrong has 15 points (7G-8A) and is a plus-4 in 40 games. His former teammates know you have to be aware when he is on the ice because he is one of the game’s top open-ice body checkers. Atlanta’s offense would be even more deadly if the entire third line of Bryan Little, Todd White and Slava Kozlov weren’t experiencing tough starts offensively compared with what they did last season. Little scored 31 times in ’08-09, but has only five goals through 38 games this season. Last season White hit career highs in assists (51) and points (73), but through the first 40 games has only three goals and 16 points. He hasn’t scored a goal in his past 31 games. Long-time Thrasher Kozlov has six 70-plus point campaigns on his resume, including 76 points (26G-50A) last year, but this season has 19 points (8G-11A) this season, including zero points in his last six games.     
A weakness two seasons ago, the Atlanta defense has transformed into a strength thanks to the acquisitions of Pavel Kubina, Ron Hainsey and Christoph Schubert the past two offseasons, and the selection of Zach Bogosian with the third-overall pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Bogosian leads all Atlanta defenders and ranks eighth (tied) in the league amongst blueliners with eight goals through 41 games. He has also proven to be capable of playing in all situations, as his 22:37 of ice time leads Atlanta. Already a presence at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Bogosian still has room to grow into his massive frame. Like any young player, particularly a 19-year-old defenseman, Bogosian’s areas of improvement include his consistency and becoming a better overall defender in his own zone.

Hainsey was Atlanta’s big free agent signee last offseason following a breakout campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006-07. A former first-round selection of the Montreal Canadiens, Hainsey flourished in his first season in Atlanta, leading all Thrasher blueliners with 39 points (6G-33A) in 81 games. He has recorded 32-or-more points three straight seasons. Hainsey’s numbers have taken a hit this season as he has only 11 points (3G-8A) through his first 39 games. Schubert has teamed with big Boris Valabik to provide muscle on Atlanta’s third pairing. Schubert is a tremendous open-ice hitter with a powerful slap shot along the blue line. Valabik, who carries a 6-foot-7, 245-pound frame onto the ice, was the 10th-overall selection by the Thrashers in the 2004 NHL Draft. He was injured at the beginning of the season and spent a two-week rehab stint with the Chicago Wolves of the American League but since his return has posted an even rating in 11 games.
Kari Lehtonen was drafted second overall in 2002 by the Thrashers in hopes that he would provide them a No. 1-caliber netminder for a long time. Injuries have derailed those hopes, as he has appeared in only 204 NHL games, including zero this season as he recovers from back surgery. He continues to practice with the team and should return by the end of the month.

Former Penguin Johna Hedberg has found a home in Atlanta after bouncing around a bit after leaving Pittsburgh. He has split time this season with Ondrej Pavelec for the Thrashers, posting a 9-6-3 record, a 2.62 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Nicknamed the “Moose” because of the blue Manitoba Moose mask he wore after arriving in Pittsburgh late in the 2000-01 season, Hedberg went 9-9 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .911 save percentage while becoming a folk hero in Pittsburgh during the 2001 postseason. 

The 22-year-old Pavelec has also done a quality job replacing Lehtonen between the pipes. Pavelec has played in 25 games, posting a record of 9-11-3 to go along with his 3.52 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.
If someone said Tuesday night’s game would feature the NHL’s seventh-best assist man, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin’s name would be the first two to come to mind. The correct answer would actually be Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom. The third-year blueliner has quietly become one of the top all-around defenders in the NHL. He ranks fourth among all defensemen with 34 points (3G-31A) through 41 games.

While his offensive numbers have gone up significantly this season, Enstrom is not a one-trick pony. His defensive positioning and all-around stability is just as impressive as his ability to put points on the board. He ranks third on Atlanta with a plus-9 rating and has never missed a game in two-plus seasons with the Thrashers. Last week Enstrom was selected to represent Sweden in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Atlanta has played the entire season without projected No. 1 netminder Kari Lehtonen. The Finish product is one of two Thrashers currently sidelined.
- Lehtonen has no timetable on his return but he has resumed skating after undergoing his second back surgery in four months on Oct. 30.
- Defenseman Mark Popovic will remain out until later this month after breaking his foot back on Dec. 9.
“He’s been doing a lot actually. We took him on the [recent] road [trip] and practiced him pretty hard. He’s getting closer. It’s a matter of conditioning. I hate to give a time frame, but two to three weeks I don’t think is out of the realm.”

– Thrashers head coach John Anderson talking to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution about the impending return of No. 1 netminder Kari Lehtonen, who has missed the entire season thus far.

38: Defenseman Tobias Enstrom registered a career-high 38 points (5G-33A) while playing all 82 games in 2006-07. With 34 points (3G-31A) through 41 games this season, he is on pace to shatter that mark.
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Author: Jason Seidling

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