Game Preview: Penguins look to extend winning streak to 8

Penguins Game Day

When: December 2 2010 | Where: Consol Energy Center
The Thrashers and Penguins are two of the hottest teams in the NHL and have spent the last three weeks climbing the ranks of the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh took over possession of the Atlantic with Philadelphia’s loss to Boston Wednesday and trails only Washington in the East. Atlanta has won six straight and sits in third in the resurgent Southeast Division, two points behind second-place Tampa Bay.

ATLANTA THRASHERS AT PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Expect a physical game. Atlanta wins with size, scoring and now goaltending. The Thrashers boast top-five offenses during even strength and man advantage play, as well as the highest scoring NHL defenseman in Dustin Byfuglien.
Atlanta is improved thanks to the draft and a bevy of moves during the offseason and at last year’s trade deadline. Since March of last season, the Thrashes have brought on Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager and Alexander Burmistrov. Byfuglien, Ladd, Sopel and Eager all arrived from Chicago via trade.
The Pens, similarly, are streaking thanks to the work of offseason acquisitions. Defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have played outstanding hockey of late, clicking as a new second pairing. Martin has helped the power play climb out of obscurity, and Michalek has returned from injury to solidify the penalty kill even further.
Both teams are riding win streaks of 6 or more games. The Penguins can win their eighth straight game – their 11th in a row with at least a point – with a win tonight.

PREVIOUS MEETINGS

Pittsburgh beat Atlanta in their only meeting this season, a 4-2 victory on November 13. Crosby recorded three points in the game, while Evgeni Malkin landed a hat trick. This is the second of four meetings between the teams this season.

STANDINGS

Two of the league’s best teams in November, both Pittsburgh and Atlanta have made strides up the ranks of the Eastern Conference during the last several weeks:
ATLANTA
13-9-3, 29 pts.
3rd Southeast, 5th East
8-5-1 Home, 5-4-2 Road
7-3-0 Last 10
PITTSBURGH
16-8-2, 34 pts.
1st Atlantic, 2nd East
7-5-1 Home, 9-3-1 Road
9-0-1 Last 10

WIN STREAKS

Pittsburgh is riding a seven-game win streak and ten-game points streak into December. They were arguably the NHL’s best team in the month of November, moving from tenth to second in the Eastern Conference on the strength of Marc-Andre Fleury’s resurgent play and Sidney Crosby’s 13-game points streak. Crosby was named the NHL’s first star of November.
Atlanta has won six straight, making the Southeast Division competitive behind the NHL-leading Washington Capitals. After losing three straight, the Thrashers have taken games from five playoff opponents in six games, including wins over Washington and Detroit, both of which leading their respective conferences.
Pittsburgh’s run was set off with the victory over Cup-hopeful Vancouver. In those seven wins, Pittsburgh has allowed two or more goals only twice, allowing just 10 total in that span.

TEAM STATS

The penalty kill rules in Pittsburgh. The PK unit remains first overall at 90.5 percent, bolstered by a healthy Zbynek Michalek and awaiting the return of Jordan Staal. Matt Cooke and Max Talbot have turned the unit into a threat to score, while Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis and the rest continue pressuring opponents and limiting time and space.
The penalty killing unit has conquered 32 consecutive power play opportunities, having not allowed a goal in nine consecutive games.
The consensus among the players in the locker room is that the play of the goaltenders is the No. 1 reason for the PK success but it’s more than just strong goaltending.
“Number one i’d say is goaltending, ” Veteran forward Craig Adams told Inside Pittsburgh Sports today. “The other team is always going to get chances and always get shots, our goaltending has been great.”
“Number 2, I think we’ve just been doing a good job blocking shots, getting sticks in passing lanes and clearing the puck when we need to, ” Adams said. “Overall it’s been good and we have some confidence out there.”
In watching the Penguins PK this season, it appears the team has become more aggressive than last year but Craig told me that wasn’t the case and nothing from a “systematic approach” has changed from last year.
Offensively, Pittsburgh is scoring a modest 3.0 goals per game, ninth in the league. The power play has moved to 15th (16.2 percent), having scored 6 times in its last 17 chances (35.2 percent in last 6 games).
Coinciding with the PK, the overall team defense has moved to fourth overall. The Pens are allowing 2.4 goals per game, 4th fewest in the NHL. The defensive stats are indicative of the type of numbers fans might have expected when GM Ray Shero acquired Martin and Michalek during the first day of free agency. (the stellar play of Fleury and Brent Johnson has also contributed mightily to the improved defense).
The Southeast Division features four of the top-10 highest-scoring teams in the NHL. Atlanta is 5th overall (3.2 goals per game), their power play one better at 4th (23.87 percent). Washington (3rd), Tampa Bay (8th) and Carolina (10th) also reside in the Southeast.
Defensively, the Thrashers are susceptible, allowing 2.9 goals per game and killing just 79.5 percent of opponents’ power plays (19th and 23rd, respectively).

NORRIS HOPEFULS

Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Letang are two of the highest-scoring defensemen in the league and are early, young favorites to take home the Norris Trophy (NHL’s best defenseman).
Andrew Ladd was named team Captain at season’s outset, but its Byfuglien who has led the Thrashers through the 2010-11 season. Byfuglien leads the team with 10 goals, 27 points and 102 shots on goal, both of which also lead all NHL defensemen.
Kris Letang, too, has had a breakout season for the Pens, notching another goal in Monday’s win over the Rangers. His 23 points are second on the team, trailing Byfuglien by four. Letang leads the Pens with a plus-12 rating, and has become a mainstay on the first power play unit.

HARDWARE FAVORITES

The media continues to fall over itself when with praise for Sidney Crosby, and why not? Sid leads the league in scoring, and paces the Penguins in goals (18), assists (23), points (41), power play goals (7), power play points (13) and faceoff percentage (55.38 percent, with at least 100 faceoff attempts).
Crosby also leads all vote-getters for the NHL All-Star game, with a near two-to-one edge in votes over second place.
There is currently a media love fest with Byfuglien and If Byfuglien doesn’t take home hardware from his play at the point this season, Atlanta’s Ondrej Pavelec might do so with a shot at the Vezina Trophy. Pavelec has started each of the team’s games during the six-game run, allowing just 5 goals in six games with two shutouts. Pavelec is now third in the NHL in GAA and save percentage, 1.65 and .948, respectively. Only Tim Thomas and Columbus backup Mathieu Garon have been better.

GOALTENDING

Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-0-0 during the Pittsburgh win streak, and has points in nine consecutive starts. He posted his first shutout against Buffalo last Wednesday and has a 1.76 GAA over his last nine starts. Fleury’s current numbers (9-6-1, 2.67 – .908) are remarkable, given the horrendous start to the season.
Brent Johnson has not seen much action during Fleury’s hot streak, but provides stability nonetheless. Johnson allowed one goal in his last start against Calgary. His .931 save percentage is fifth among all NHL goaltenders.
Ondrej Pavelec, as mentioned, has backstopped the Thrashers’ current success. His 1.65 – .948 line is among the best in the league. Pavelec has a .83 GAA over his last 6.

THIRD LINE COMING TOGETHER

Perhaps not the “league’s best third line,” as last year’s trio of Cooke-Staal-Kennedy was deemed, Mark Letestu, Chris Conner and Tyler Kennedy have caused trouble for opposition back checkers.
The line has been thrown out several times as a second power play unit, and are a combined plus-1. Chris Conner scored a goal against the Rangers, his second of the year. Letestu and Conner were AHL players at the outset of the season, but have played their way into everyday roles.
As part of the third line, Conner and Letestu have helped solidify the Penguins line combinations, a variable that was missing during the early parts of the season but has become consistent during the current win streak.
Their play has kept veterans like Mike Comrie and Eric Godard out of the lineup on most nights, and Eric Tangradi, the expected AHL call up for this season, now likely won’t become a regular on the squad until next year, especially as the team awaits the return of Jordan Staal and potential roster moves through trades.

INJURIES

Jordan Staal is 2-3 weeks from returning. Staal skated again this morning prior to the Penguins morning skate.
Mike Comrie, often a healthy scratch, is listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury. Arron Asham is recovering from an illness, but should play Thursday. Eric Godard would go in his absence.
Evander Kane is doubtful for tonight’s game as the Thrashers are expected to dress 7 defenseman. Freddy Meyer will play for the first time in 17 games.
Fredrik Modin is day-to-day for Atlanta (ribs).

Penguins Lineup

Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis
Cooke – Malkin – Talbot
Conner – Letestu – Kennedy
Rupp – Adams – Asham/Godard
Defensemen
Orpik – Letang
Martin – Michalek
Goligoski – Engelland
Marc Andre Fleury in goal
*Information provided by Will DePaoli and James Conley*

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