Bill Thomas, a Fox Chapel High School graduate, had been to Mellon Arena and watched Penguins games many times.
"I remember a game where [Jaromir] Jagr had a hat trick and the rink was just covered [with hats]," Thomas said yesterday. "I remember watching with my brother on TV when they won the Stanley Cup up in Minnesota [in 1991]."
But he had never made a trip to the arena like the one last night.
"To finally be out here in an NHL jersey is pretty incredible," Thomas, a winger with Phoenix, said after the Coyotes' morning skate.
He left Nebraska-Omaha after his second season in spring 2006 and signed with Phoenix as a free agent. He played in nine games late that season, getting a goal and two assists. Last season he played in 24 games in the NHL, getting eight goals and 14 points.
"We like what he brings," Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky said. "It's an opportunity for him to make a statement [playing in his hometown]."
He began this season with Phoenix's minor-league team in San Antonio and it didn't look like he would make it back to Mellon for the Coyotes' only trip to Pittsburgh, but he was recalled over the weekend and had no points in 12:33 of ice time in Phoenix's loss at Detroit.
Thomas expected a lot of family and friends at the game.
Swapped players square off
Daniel Carcillo and Georges Laraque were traded for each other at the February deadline, the Penguins getting one of the true NHL heavyweights in Laraque and Phoenix getting a bulldog who hadn't gotten his chance to break into the NHL as a Penguins prospect.
"It was one of the best days of my life," Carcillo said of the trade that sent him to a club able to put him in the lineup right away.
Carcillo had four goals and 11 points for the Coyotes going into last night, but the number that stood out was his 130 penalty minutes in 24 games.
"He'll be pumped to play us, no doubt," said Penguins coach Michel Therrien, who coached Carcillo in Wilkes-Barre. "And Georges will be pumped, too. That's a pretty even matchup."
However, Carcillo had no intention of further inflating his penalty minutes by taking on Laraque.
"I don't really fight guys like that. He's a little bigger than I am," said Carcillo, who is 5 feet 11, 203 pounds compared with Laraque at 6-3, 243.
Gretzky said there's no shame in Carcillo, who had a couple strong training camps with the Penguins, failing to crack the NHL while he was here.
"Listen, when your strength in an organization is the young forwards you have up front, it's sometimes tough for guys to get that opportunity," Gretzky said.
"He brings some feistiness and energy, but because he is a good skater and he does have good hands, I think he has the ability to be a 20-, 25-goal scorer in this league."
Penguins forward Maxime Talbot returned after missing five games because of a high ankle sprain. The Penguins scratched defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forwards Jarkko Ruutu and Mark Recchi. Gonchar missed his third game in a row because of a groin injury. "You don't want to go back too early and then need some more time," Gonchar said. ... Gretzky on Penguins center Sidney Crosby's added role of penalty killer this season: "He's too good of a player [not to kill penalties]. He's a good faceoff man and solid defensively. It was just a matter of time before he was going to be on the PK." ... On a night when Recchi was scratched for the sixth consecutive game, the Penguins gave away Recchi bobblehead dolls commemorating his 500th NHL goal, scored in January. ... Phoenix scratches were defenseman Brendan Bell and wingers Craig Weller and Radim Vrbata. ... The Penguins collected a community record of more than 1,600 toys and $4,770 in donations Friday during their annual drive for the United States Marines Toys for Tots program.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.