PITTSBURGH (AP) -Not that long ago, Penguins fans went to the arena nightly knowing they might see something special from Mario Lemieux. Now, Sidney Crosby is becoming just that kind of player, too.
Crosby scored all three Pittsburgh goals for the first natural hat trick of his six-season career and the Penguins won a matchup of teams on long winning streaks, beating the Atlanta Thrashers 3-2 on Thursday night.
With Crosby becoming the first Penguins player in nearly 10 years to score three goals in successive home games, Pittsburgh ran its winning streak to eight games. Atlanta's franchise record-tying streak ended at six.
``I shouldn't be surprised,' Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. ``But I did shake my head a couple of times.'
It took the NHL's hottest scorer to beat one of the league's hottest teams.
Crosby has scored six goals in his last two home games - he had three Saturday against Calgary - and has 15 goals and 14 assists for 29 points during a 14-game scoring streak.
``That's something you expect from him, because we see him every day,' goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ``But it still amazes me how good he is, how hard he works to get better.'
Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer with 21 goals and 23 assists for 44 points in 27 games, tied Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the goal-scoring lead. They tied for the goals title last season with 51 apiece.
Crosby did not score three consecutive goals during any of his six previous hat tricks, but he did so against goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who had an 0.83 goals-against average during Atlanta's winning streak.
``I try not to think about the points, I try to evaluate the (overall) game. I think the team's been playing well and as a line we've been clicking,' said Crosby, referring to linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. ``But it's good to see them go in because sometimes they don't go in.'
Pavelec has been nearly unbeatable in net for two weeks, giving up five goals in six games while stopping 183 of 188 shots, but he is 0-6 against Pittsburgh.
``We have to keep our heads up,' Pavelec said. ``They're on a roll; we're on a roll. We just lost one game.'
The Penguins are on their longest winning streak since they also won eight in a row from Dec. 23, 2007-Jan. 10, 2008. They've taken over the Atlantic Division lead with 36 points, going 10-0-1 in their last 11 to pull within two points of Washington for the overall lead.
Fleury allowed Nik Antropov's goal that made it 3-2 late in the second period, but made 20 saves while improving to 9-0-1 in his last 10 starts. He was especially strong as Atlanta pushed repeatedly for the tying goal in the third period.
Bryan Little scored off a rebound 6:21 into the game, the first goal allowed by Pittsburgh's league-leading penalty-killing unit in 10 games.
Crosby needed only 1:11 to tie it, settling down a long pass through traffic from Kunitz at the side of the net and beating Pavelec.
Crosby reached the 20-goal mark early in the second period. A surprised Arron Asham looked up the ice after Atlanta defenseman Dustin Byfuglien fanned on a one-timer and saw Crosby 50 feet behind any defender at the far blue line. Crosby took the long pass, broke in on Pavelec and beat him cleanly with a backhander.
``He comes off the bench, gets a breakaway and gets it in the net,' Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay said. ``A couple of things bounced against us.'
Crosby completed his hat trick at 10:18 of the second, deftly deflecting Brooks Orpik's slap shot from the blue line. No Penguins player had scored hat tricks in successive home games since Alex Kovalev on Feb. 7 & 10, 2001.
``The boy's special, there's no question,' Ramsay said. ``Everybody knows that. When players like that get on a roll, it's scary to play against them. When the puck bounces, they get it and when they get it, good things happen.'
There was an audible stir after that whenever Crosby had the puck on his stick, but he couldn't score again. Crosby has never had a four-goal game in his 398 career NHL games.
NOTES: Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin scored three goals Nov. 13 in Atlanta. ... Atlanta has scored the first goal in 11 of its last 13 games. ... The Penguins are 6-1 against Southeast Division teams. They have won their last eight at home against Atlanta. ... Crosby reached the 20-goal mark in his 27th game. He did it in his 30th game last season.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved