December 18, 2014

As Evgeni Malkin delivered a wake-up call to the desperate Pittsburgh Penguins this week, the Colorado Avalanche practically slept through their latest road challenge.

The Avalanche hope to answer the call on Thursday night when they visit the Penguins.

Malkin called out his team following a 4-0 loss at New Jersey on Saturday, Pittsburgh's third defeat in four games. A players-only meeting followed, and after two days off, the Penguins (11-7-0) looked like a different team against Minnesota on Tuesday.

Malkin backed up his words with two goals and a pair of assists during the 4-3 home victory after totaling just two points in his previous seven games.

"He's such a good player," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury told the team's official website. "He's so dangerous, so good and he just showed what type of guy he is."

Malkin, who has at least one point in seven of eight games against Colorado, is hoping Tuesday's performance is more telling of the team's offense.

The Penguins averaged just 2.06 goals through the first 17 games despite a plethora of offensive talent. The power play looked better against the Wild with a pair of goals on six chances, but the Penguins' 14.3 percent success rate still lags toward the bottom of the league.

''It's still not perfect but it's a little bit better," Malkin said. "... and I hope we all understand what's starting to go on on the team and support each other and start winning.''

Pittsburgh did suffer the loss of defenseman Olli Maatta after he was drilled in the back by Nino Niederreiter midway through the second period. The 21-year-old, who played 20 games last season while fighting through a cancer scare and shoulder surgery, slammed through an open doorway and left the ice with help from trainers.

Maatta, who was released from the hospital Wednesday, is expected to miss 3-4 weeks with what the Penguins call an upper-body injury.

The Avalanche are 16-5-3 with three ties against Pittsburgh since moving to Denver in 1995-96, but 2-3-3 in the last eight meetings. The Penguins have won four of five in Pittsburgh.

The Avalanche (7-10-1) outscored opponents 13-3 during a season-high three-game win streak to open a seven-game trip, but their momentum came to a crashing halt with Tuesday's 5-1 loss at Toronto.

Reto Berra began the trip with 89 saves on 92 shots in place of injured starter Semyon Varlamov, but Berra was pulled in the third period against the Maple Leafs after allowing four goals on 26 shots.

The Avalanche surrendered four power-play goals on five opportunities and also gave up one short-handed.

''I guess we just had an off night,'' coach Patrick Roy said. ''Tonight was one of our worst performances. They scored four power-play goals and one short-handed goal, and that was the story of the game.''

Varlamov, who is 3-6-1 with a 3.26 goals against average, is day to day with a groin injury he suffered in practice in Philadelphia last week. Berra has a 1.86 GAA during a stretch of five straight starts.

Fleury is 7-3-0 with a 2.12 GAA against the Avalanche for his career, stopping 29 shots in a 1-0 victory Dec. 18 in the most recent matchup in Pittsburgh. Blake Comeau, now with Colorado, scored the lone goal in that contest.

This has been a very good matchup for Penguins forward Phil Kessel, who has seven goals and nine points in his last seven games against the Avalanche.

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