Previewing Pens @ Thrashers

Tonight’s game is a “must win.”  Not only is tonight a must win, but the next four games are “must wins.”

The Penguins play Atlanta, Toronto, Buffalo and Tampa Bay before hitting another four game stretch where they play New Jersey, Montreal and Boston twice.  Accumulating points is of the utmost concern.

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With four straight days of rest and four opponents below the Pens in the Eastern Conference this should not be hard to accomplish.

Facing Atlanta (10-16-4, 24 pts.) tonight, Pittsburgh (16-10-4, 36 pts.) is matched up with the third worst team in the East — just two points from being the worst (Tampa Bay, 22 pts.).  The Thrashers are not bad at scoring, but they can’t keep the puck out of their own net.  Atlanta has allowed 108 goals in 30 games this year.

Boston Bruins'  Michael Ryder, second from right, celebrates his goal with teammates Blake Wheeler, right, and  Matt Hunwick (48) as Atlanta Thrashers' Bryan Little (10) skates past in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Boston Bruins' Michael Ryder, second from right, celebrates his goal with teammates Blake Wheeler, right, and Matt Hunwick (48) as Atlanta Thrashers' Bryan Little (10) skates past in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

That’s an average of 3.6 goals per game.  The Pens average 3.3 a game so this could be a great chance to start this four-game block off on a good note as far as scoring goes.

The Atlanta goaltenders have been struggling mightily this year.  Johan Hedberg is carrying the load because Kari Lehtonen is out with a back injury.

Hedberg has played in more games, 14, but has worse numbers.  He has a 3.71 GAA and .883 SV% while going 5-6-2.

Lehtonen’s numbers are better, but better is still not very good.  In nine games he is 2-5-2 with a 3.44 GAA and .903 SV%.

The replacement for Lehtonen is Ondrej Pavelec.  Pavelec has performed well … compared to his counterparts.  His numbers are a 3.16 GAA and .897 SV%.  He played the Pens earlier in the year, giving up three goals in a loss.

Also plaguing the Thrashers is the penalty kill.  They are dead last in the NHL in that category, killing just 72.4% of all penalties. This works in the Penguins’ favor and is another area that can jump start this team.

What this all amounts to is the Pens should be able to jump out early and score a goal.  They should be able to build a lead and, likely, protect it.  The Thrashers have scoring power, but it’s in the middle of the pack in the East and should provide no huge surprises.

The man Pittsburgh will have to stop is Ilya Kovalchuk.  As he does every year, Kovalchuk leads the Thrashers in scoring.  This season he has 31 points (11 G – 20 A).

This game is huge.  I’ve been saying it the last four days on this blog and to anyone I’ve spoken to about the game.  There is no excuse for losing this game. The schedule is very weird this season, probably because of every team playing each other, and it seems to be scheduled in four-game blocks.

This is an easy block and it is followed by a tough four-game block.  The team can’t focus on the future.  If the Pens look at it the way I am then this  game could be trickier than it needs to be.

Tonight, the Penguins are a far superior team.  They should jump out to an early lead, protect that lead and therefore gain confidence in their ability to do so.

It can also be a great jump start to Marc-Andre Fleury if he indeed starts.  A game like this would be great for him to start with.  I think the Pens can get him that early lead and cause a comfortable situation for a first start.

Chris | PPT

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