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Pittsburgh vs. Colorado Preview

by Deborah Francisco / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (20-18-4-44) vs. Colorado Avalanche (21-19-1-43)

Where: Pepsi Center
When: Saturday, January 10 at 3 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: It is the first meeting and only meeting between the two clubs this season.



 Pens vs. Avalanche 11/01/07
Shut Down their Offense: Much like the Penguins, the Avalanche has been searching for the perfect line combination with injuries to some of its top players. The Avalanche will be playing new line combinations against the Penguins, which Pittsburgh may be able to take advantage of. The Penguins would be wise to contain Colorado's offense early to prevent any chemistry from forming.

Shoot the Puck: The Penguins will have to improve the number of shots they are taking if they hope to get the puck past Andrew Raycroft, who stopped 43 shots in his last game against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Avalanche will try to limit Pittsburgh’s chances and the best remedy to beating a solid defensive team is to shoot the puck.
The Avalanche earned 95 points and went 44-31-7 last season. Colorado somehow managed to make a second-round appearance in the postseason. The team entered the 2007-2008 season with high hopes with the return of young star Paul Stastnty, and the addition of veteran forward Ryan Smyth. However, the team never seemed to find its full potential over the season and struggled with excessive injuries and inconsistent goal tending. It looked like the once celebrated rivalry between the Avalanche and Red Wings would be rekindled in the second round but Detroit effortlessly swept past the Avalanche in four games.

The Avalanche parted ways with head coach Joel Quenville and opted to bring on Tony Granato for a second stint as Colorado’s head coach. Granato coached the team from 2002-03 but stepped down to an assistant position at the start of the 2005 season when the team brought Quenville on board. Granato has Colorado fighting tooth-and-nail for a playoff spot. They are currently ranked fourth in the Northwest Division and ninth in the Western Conference with 43 points overall. They are two points behind eighth-seed Minnesota. The Avalanche suffered a number of injuries to key players, but surprisingly, remains in postseason contention. They just keep fighting and are above the .500 mark after the half way point of the season.
The Avalanche made some intriguing changes before the start of this season. First, they named Granato head coach for a second go-around. The most notable addition to the lineup was goalie Andrew Raycroft. Colorado added enforcer Darcy Tucker with the hopes of toughening up the roster. The Avalanche secured their blue line by re-signing veteran Adam Foote, John-Michael Liles and Ruslan Selei. They also signed forwards Brian Willsie, and defenseman Daniel Tjarnqvist.
Every season the Avalanche seems to struggle with injuries, and this season is no exception. Joe Sakic waited until the last minute to decide if he would play his 20th season in the NHL or retire. Sakic eventually decided to play with the club. Denver was shocked when he suffered severe injuries to his hand from a freak snowblower accident in December. Sakic, the team’s longtime captain, played in only 15 games and will be out at least until March. The team also lost its biggest offensive threat when Paul Stastny suffered a broken forearm. He will also be out until March. The former second-round pick is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and 21 assists for 31 points.

In the wake of the teams injuries a number of other forwards have stepped up their games. Veteran Ryan Smyth (29 points) and Wojtek Wolski (23) have stepped up offensively. Right wing Milan Hejduk is a staple in the team’s offense, especially with the absence of Sakic and Stastny. Since 2005 his points per year are 58, 70 and 54. He currently has 30 points (13G-17A) on the season, second-best on the team. Hejduk is a consistent goal scorer who the Penguins will have to shut down from the beginning of the game. A forward to look out for is right wing David Jones. Jones is a Dartmouth graduate, who played his way onto the Colorado lineup last season. He is a strong offensive player. Jones is solid on his feet and works hard to make things happen.
The Avalanche built up a solid blue line in recent years. John-Michael Liles is leading the team's defense in scoring with 19 points (5G-14A). He was drafted by the Avalanche in the fifth round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft and has proved himself as a capable offensive defenseman. Longtime Colorado defenseman Adam Foote returned to the franchise at the trade deadline last year after playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Foote is a key component to Colorado's defensive game but will likely not play Saturday against the Penguins because of a recent foot injury.

Kyle Cumisky was recalled from Colorado's AHL affiliate to fill Foote's roster spot. The Avalanche also acquired former first-round pick (1996) Ruslan Salei from the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline last season. The veteran blueliner has logged 797 NHL games in 10-plus seasons. Overall, the Avalanche have a solid defensive group and will prove a difficult task for the Penguins.
The goaltender position has plagued the Avalanche since Patrick Roy retired in 2003. Last season, the team switched back and forth between Jose Theodore and Peter Budaj, never really settling on a starting goalie. Theodore finally showed hope of performing as a No. 1 goalie late in the season, helping the Avalanche rally for a playoff spot. However, Theodore turned down a contract offer from the Avalanche over the summer and signed with the Washington Capitals. The Avalanche then signed Andrew Raycroft to fill the void.

The goaltending carousel continued this season. Budaj has carried the top goaltending duties early in the season but it looks like Raycroft is about to replace Budaj as Colorado’s starting goalie. Raycroft is 8-1-0 on the season and made a career-high 43 saves in the team’s 2-1victory over the Blackhawks Jan. 8. Raycroft boasts a 2.52 goals against average and .908 save percentage. Budaj has a 2.82 GAA and .901 save percentage. It appears that Raycroft will get the start against the Penguins.
Wojtek Wolski was Colorado’s first-round draft pick (21st overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound Polish native who possesses acute goal scoring abilities. He finished his rookie season in 2005 with 50 points and ranked fourth among rookies in the NHL. Wolski played left wing for the past three years, earning 48 points last season and has 23 points so far this season. With injuries sidelining Colorado’s top two centers (Sakic and Stastny) until March, Wolski has been promoted to top-line center - his natural position. In recent games, Wolski has stepped up as one of the Avalanche’s top forwards, earning four points in the past two games (1G-3A).

Wolski has a knack for making plays at critical moments. He is Colorado’s top player when it comes to shootouts. Already this season he is 7-1 in shootouts and scored the lone shootout goal on Dec. 27 to lead the Avalanche to a 4-3 victory over its arch rivals, the Detroit Red Wings.
“We’ve battled. We’ve competed. That much I can say about this team.”
- Avalanche head coach Tony Granato said to the Denver Post about his team losing its top two centers.
Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk is just two goals away from his 300th career score. Ryan Smyth is only three goals shy of the 300 mark.

Author: Deborah Francisco

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