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The loss of reigning MVP Sidney Crobsy figured to spell trouble for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Four games into their captain's absence, they are doing better than expected.
The Penguins look to take over sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division on Wednesday night when they visit the Atlanta Thrashers, losers of five straight.
When Crosby suffered a high-ankle sprain against Tampa Bay on Jan. 18, the Penguins were one of the league's hottest teams, having gone 9-0-1 in their previous 10 games. A 3-0 loss in that contest figured to be a sign of things to come as Pittsburgh (28-18-4) dealt with the loss of arguably the league's best player.
The Penguins, though, rebounded with a 2-0 victory at Montreal in their next game before a losses to Washington and Atlantic-leading Philadelphia going into the All-Star break.
In their first game back, the Penguins erased a pair of one-goal deficits in a 4-2 victory Tuesday at New Jersey.
Pittsburgh improved to 2-1-1 without Crosby, scoring 14 goals in those four games after tallying 13 in the previous four contests with the defending Art Ross Trophy winner in the lineup.
Ryan Malone scored twice and Erik Christensen had a goal and an assist during a three-goal second period as the Penguins won their fifth straight at New Jersey. The win kept them one point behind the red-hot Flyers, who beat Los Angeles 3-2 in overtime.
"It shows we don't give up," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "I think we've got everyone doubting us in the whole hockey world right now. It's an honor and a privilege for us to play well. It's something we've got to go out and prove that we can do."
Ty Conklin was outstanding again, stopping 23 shots to improve to 11-2-2 since joining the team following Fleury's injury in December.
"That's the way we know we have to play especially at the end of the year when you're going to get a lot of these tight, close games in the division," Conklin said. "It was a good way for us to start the stretch drive."
Although Atlanta (23-25-4) is only four points behind first-place Carolina, that has more to do with the weak Southeast Division than the Thrashers' solid play of late.
Playing without leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, who was serving a one-game suspension, the Thrashers managed only 18 shots in regulation and overtime before losing 2-1 in a shootout to the New York Rangers on Thursday.
Atlanta has scored six goals during a five-game losing streak, its longest since a season-opening six-game skid that led to the firing of coach Bob Hartley.
Kovalchuk is mired in his worst stretch of the season, going without a goal in five games while recording one point in that span. He has 16 goals and 13 assists in 21 career games against Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are 1-0-1 this season against the Thrashers, losing the lone meeting in Atlanta 3-2 in a shootout on Jan. 12. Pittsburgh has at least one point in five of the last six matchups (3-1-2).