Penguins defense playing much better



One of the key reasons is the performance of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Penguins defensive is changing for the better.
Though the Penguins rank 23rd in the NHL in goals-against, it's a dramatic improvement over last season.
Pittsburgh's 3.73 goals-against average in 2005-06 was the worst in the NHL, but the Penguins have lowered that by nearly two-thirds of a goal this season.
There have been several reasons for the turnaround, ranging from the emergence of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and better play from the team's forwards in their own end.
The Penguins' defense will undergo more changes within the next two weeks.
With veteran Josef Melichar expected to miss three to four weeks with a knee injury, Pittsburgh called up rookie Noah Welch from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL.
Eaton nearly ready
Also, Mark Eaton is taking huge strides in his quest to return to the lineup after missing 32 contests with a wrist injury. He participated in practice Monday.
"We lost Mark Eaton for a long period of time, so it was a good thing now for him to take the next step and come back to practice," coach Michel Therrien said. "It's nice to see him back, and without Joe Melichar, we liked what we saw from our six defensemen in our last game. ... [Welch] played real well in Philly."
Eaton, who dislocated his left wrist in a game against San Jose on Nov. 4, had established himself as the Penguins' top defensive defenseman and one of their top penalty-killers in the 10 games before he got hurt. The Penguins went 7-3 in that span.
Pittsburgh has lost 21 of the 33 games without Eaton.
After weeks of rehabilitation, Eaton was cleared by doctors Monday morning to practice with the team. He hopes to return to action after next week's All-Star break.
"Now, it's a collective decision between myself, the trainers and coaches as far as when I'm ready," Eaton said. "I was able to hit and go full speed. It's just a matter of getting game timing and when the coaches feel I am ready."
Welch impressed coach
Welch, a former second-round pick in his second season, played in five games with the Penguins last season and 18 earlier this season.
During the holiday break, Therrien was impressed by Welch's play for Wilkes-Barre.
"I went down there and started playing 20-plus minutes a night, and that was more beneficial right now at this stage of my career than to be up here playing only a few minutes," Welch said. "I believe I can play at this level.
"Hopefully, my game will get better each night and I'll get my confidence back up so I can help this team win and make it tough for me to send me back."
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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