The Thrashers will get an indication of how far they’ve come as a hockey team Saturday.
The defending Stanley Cup champion can be a pretty good measuring stick.
Pittsburgh comes to town having beaten the Thrashers five consecutive times, including all four games last season en route to the NHL title.
“Ask anybody in the league, when Pittsburgh comes in they are the defending Stanley Cup champions,” Thrashers forward Nik Antropov said. “You want to play a really good game. It’s going to be a good test for our team.”
Sure, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Max Talbot have recently returned to their lineup. Although Pittsburgh is missing a considerable number of top defensemen, it has the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (14-8-0, 28 points).
That is a concern for Thrashers coach John Anderson. A bigger concern is his young team’s mental makeup when facing an opponent with the status of the Penguins.
“All [winning against Pittsburgh on Saturday] does is build confidence through the year,” Anderson said. “Take the last game, to lose to Boston [Thursday], it’s like we haven’t beaten them in [now eight of the past nine games] -- even before I was here. We have to get over that mental barrier, like ‘Oh, it’s the Penguins’ or ‘Oh, it’s the Bruins.’ We have to go ‘OK, they are a good hockey team, but so are we.’ That’s the mentality that we have to have. Not ‘There’s Crosby, there’s Malkin.' Just play. Feel good that if we do the things we want to do, we can win the hockey game.”
Anderson related a story from when he was a player with Toronto. The Maple Leafs had a run of success, especially over Edmonton. However, in the early 1980s the Oilers roster started to include players such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. The tide turned once the young Oilers discovered they could play with the Maple Leafs. Soon it was Toronto wondering when it would ever beat Edmonton.
“We’ve got to get over that mental hump that says we do belong here, we do belong with these teams,” Anderson said. “We have to have that mental attitude.”
The Thrashers (10-6-2, 22 points) are gaining confidence. Thursday’s shootout loss to Boston snapped a four-game win streak, but extended their point streak to five games. As has been an early-season pattern, the Thrashers fell behind. Against the Bruins they were able to come back from the early deficit and salvage a point.
It’s that experience that will help as the season progress, says Antropov.
“That’s how you build chemistry in the [locker] room,” he said. “Guys trust each other, and they know that they can come back. Obviously, you don’t want to be down every game, you use up more energy and you’ll be more tired at the end of the season. I’m really glad to see that we are doing this so far and hopefully we can continue.”
The Thrashers will have to watch Crosby. He is tied for 21st in the NHL -- with the Thrashers’ Ilya Kovalchuk -- with 21 points. His 10 goals are tied for 17th in the league.
“You got to know when he’s on the ice,” said Thrashers goaltender Johan Hedberg, who will make his sixth start of the season. “With every team that has exceptional players ... you’ve got to know where he is.”
Hedberg (4-1) is tied for seventh in the NHL with a .923 save percentage. He also will face the team for which he made his NHL debut and spent three seasons. Although most of the organization has turned over since Hedberg debuted in 2001, he is looking forward to facing the Penguins.
“It’s the team that gave me a chance to play in the league,” Hedberg said. “I had a good time there. It will be special to see them on the other side.”
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