Tonight's game at the Igloo vs. the Atlanta Thrashers will be a true test to see whether the Pens are ready to turn the corner and start heading up the Eastern Conference ladder, up where many hockey pundits predicted they'd be this year.
The Thanksgiving Night victory in Ottawa vs. the high octane Senators was a huge one for the Pens. Another loss, which looked pretty promising when the Sens built two separate two-goal leads, would have been a major blow to the young team's psyche. Quite frankly, who knows, the Pens' win vs. the Sens may have saved Coach Michel Therrien's job.
The win should be a blueprint for the Pens to use if they intend on being a player in the Eastern Conference. Not in the fact that they gave up five goals of course, but in the manner in which they performed. They clearly remembered the way that the Sens dominated them in last year's playoffs in every way possible. The Sens beat the Pens up physically back then, especially their superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They were extremely aggressive on the forecheck right from the start, and truthfully, the Pens didn't know what hit them. On Thursday however, the Pens matched the Sens' aggressiveness and forechecking and created turnovers in the Sens' defensive zone that led to the two goals that tied the game late in the first period. They created traffic around the net and got some dirty goals, which is where the majority of the goals in today's NHL come from. They got three goals from players not named Crosby nor Malkin, those being two from chronic underachiever Ryan Malone and one from rookie Tyler Kennedy.
It was a great emotional win for the Penguins, and they must continue that emotion and intensity tonight as the Atlanta Thrashers come to town. They cannot repeat their recent home performances, where they come out flat and uninspired. They need to keep things simple and not try to impress the home folks with cutesy behind the back passes.
Let's not forget, the Thrashers aren't simply going to lay down, either. Nothing would make Ilya Kovalchuk and his boys happier than to come into Mellon Arena and leave with another road win vs. the Pens. Remember that Kovalchuk and Crosby have a short but intense history, punctuated last year by Kovalchuk pointing to Crosby in the penalty box after scoring a powerplay goal.
I'd like to see Kris Letang get some more time on the #1 powerplay unit. Having Ryan Whitney may give the Pens more stability overall on that unit, but it severely limits their options. Rather than passing the puck between Whitney and Sergei Gonchar, where the penalty killers know the lefty Whitney isn't going to shoot from the left point unless it's one a backdoor pass from Crosby, the Pens should even out the shooting options with the right-handed Letang on that unit. Having Letang with his excellent slapshot forces the penalty kill units to shift towards his side long enough to open up more room for Crosby and Malkin.
I'd wager that Dany Sabourin will start tonight, rather than Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury's quick pulling after allowing two fairly soft goals in Ottawa is yet another indication that Therrien is quite unhappy with Fleury's performance this year, albeit Therrien's public support of Fleury not withstanding.
It should be quite an intense game tonight. Even though the Thrashers are not a divisional opponent, it's quite apparent that these two teams don't like each other at all.
LET'S GO PENS !!!
The Confluence of the Three Rivers