Take the Penguins' 3-1 victory against Atlanta at Mellon Arena last night for precisely what it was: A two-point tourniquet.
Functional, efficient and maybe a life-saver.
Now, beating a club doomed to contend for nothing more than a lottery pick this season doesn't mean the Penguins have regained their rhythm or that they're ready to surge through the Eastern Conference.
It simply ended their five-game losing streaks -- one overall, one on home ice -- and represented a fairly modest, but important, step forward. One that had to be taken.
"Guys finally feel good in the locker room after the game," defenseman Ryan Whitney said.
Those good feelings won't last, though, if this victory proves to be a brief blip in an otherwise miserable stretch. Return from a road trip to Nashville, Colorado and Philadelphia that begins with a game against the Predators tomorrow night with little more than leftover meal money, and the points the Penguins got last night won't matter much.
"We can't just stop here," Whitney said. "We have to string together wins. You can't go one, then lose a few more. There has to be a streak."
That's not unrealistic. Their next three opponents are beatable if the Penguins play to anything approaching their potential, which is why the game last night could go down as a pivotal point in their season.
If nothing else, it marked the end of their first half, which the Penguins finished with a 20-17-4 record. That projects to 88 points over a full season; Boston claimed the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference last spring with 94.
Those numbers obviously are cause for concern, but the game last night gave the Penguins reason to be encouraged, too.
After failing to get a power-play goal in seven consecutive games, they scored two in six tries. They also manufactured more than two goals for the first time since Dec. 22. And goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp, stopping 27 of 28 shots.
Beating the Thrashers came at a price, however, as the Penguins lost wingers Ruslan Fedotenko and Pascal Dupuis because of unspecified injuries. There was no immediate indication of how long either will be out.
That the Penguins grasped what was at stake last night became evident 87 seconds after the opening faceoff, when Fedotenko not only agreed to fight Thrashers winger Colby Armstrong, but dropped him with a right jab.
"He really set the tone for our team," coach Michel Therrien said.
Fedotenko, who is believed to have had four previous fights in the NHL, left the game with an apparent hand injury. More than a few of Armstrong's former teammates joked that Fedotenko was hurt because his fist made contact with Armstrong's rather prominent nose.
"He does have a snout on him," Whitney said. "That nose can hurt a hand."
As the first period wound down, the Penguins, 0 for 32 with the extra man in the previous seven games, ended that skid when Petr Sykora deflected a Whitney pass behind Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen at 17:10.
Sykora struck again at 12:43 of the second, backhanding a shot by Lehtonen to make it 2-0. The goal was set up by Evgeni Malkin, who won a faceoff and took the puck to the net before feeding it to Sykora.
Sykora's goal proved to be the winner, and Sidney Crosby added some insurance during a power play at 15:41. He deflected a Malkin shot out of the air and into the net for his first man-advantage goal since Nov. 13.
Malkin's assist was his third of the game, pushing his league-leading points total to 63.
The Thrashers finally broke through at 14:20 of the third, when Ilya Kovalchuk whipped a wrist shot through traffic and into the net behind Fleury on a power play. That cost Fleury a shutout, but not his big postgame smile.
Fact is, there were quite a few of those in the home team's dressing room, for a change.
"Confidence builds confidence," left winger Matt Cooke said. "You get a few goals and you get a win ... and everyone gets a good feeling."
Droughts that ended in last night's 3-1 Penguins victory:
5 Game losing streak.
7 Games without scoring more than two goals.
33 Power plays without a goal before Petr Sykora scored at 17:10 of the first period.
115:33 Minutes and seconds without any sort of goal before Sykora scored.
Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org First Published January 7, 2009 5:00 AM