For the first time in eight games, the Penguins finished stronger than they started, earning a 5-1 victory over New Jersey Saturday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center.
Three points each from linemates Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz led the way offensively, with Pascal Dupuis and Evgeni Malkin chipping in two assists apiece. Crosby, Kunitz, Kris Letang, Brandon Sutter and Robert Bortuzzo got the Pittsburgh goals, with Sutter earning his first as a Penguin and Bortuzzo picking up his first in eight NHL games.
The Penguins were the highest-scoring team in the NHL last season, averaging more than three goals per game, but Saturday was just the second time they’ve netted four or more in 2013. With the victory, Pittsburgh (5-3-0) improved to 4-1 against Atlantic Division opponents.
Just as significant as the offensive outburst was the Penguins’ team defense, which has been an issue at times over the season’s first three weeks. They limited the Devils (3-1-3) to 16 shots, giving goalie Marc-Andre Fleury a mostly uneventful afternoon en route to his third win in five starts.
The Penguins weren’t without flaws, as they allowed New Jersey to get a few good looks at the net sprinkled throughout the game. However, only defenseman Andy Greene was able to beat Fleury, as he slid home a shorthanded breakaway goal in the second period that cut the Pittsburgh lead to 2-1.
But the third period was arguably the Penguins’ best of the young year, with Letang, Crosby and Bortuzzo connecting over a span of 7 minutes, 20 seconds to clinch the result. Kunitz found Letang in the slot 2:31 into the frame after some strong work behind the Devils net, and Letang gunned a wrist shot over Martin Brodeur’s glove.
Kunitz, whose second goal of the season gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 advantage in the second period, picked up his third point when he relayed the puck onto the tape of Crosby in the neutral zone. The soaring Penguins captain snapped the puck under the crossbar from the left wing for his fourth of the year at 7:11.
Crosby added his third point when he stole the puck to Brodeur’s right and pushed a pass to Bortuzzo at center point. The 23-year-old defensive-minded blueliner drove a shot that tipped off a Devil and through Brodeur’s legs with 10 minutes to play.
Fleury made his two best saves late, denying Steve Bernier and David Clarkson from close range in the waning moments. His standing-up glove save on Clarkson pleased the sellout crowd, which brought good energy for the first time in three home games.
Of course, the Penguins’ comprehensive performance had a lot to do with engaging their fans, who had seen their team drop their first two home games to Toronto and the Islanders by a combined 9-3 score.
Saturday’s tilt seemed very much up for grabs in the first period, when the teams exchanged chances and the Penguins showed the same carelessness with the puck that has periodically plagued them thus far.
Pittsburgh got on a better track in the second, outshooting New Jersey 12-4 and getting the game’s first two goals. Sutter flipped his first goal as a Penguin past Brodeur at 2:27 off assists from Crosby and Malkin. The 40-year-old Brodeur had improbably robbed Sutter of a likely score in the first by extending his goalstick in desperation.
New Jersey defenseman Volchenkov inexplicably handed the puck right to Kunitz in the slot for a two-goal Penguins lead with 10:04 left in the period, but a disorganized Pittsburgh power play led to Greene’s surprising tally less than three minutes later.
Instead of allowing the Greene goal to deflate them, the Penguins responded with a dominant third, making responsible plays in their own zone and moving toward the New Jersey goal sharply. Pittsburgh ended up outshooting the Devils 30-16, a margin befitting the play on the ice.
The Penguins will look for three wins in a row when they travel to Washington for a 12:30 p.m. faceoff Sunday. The game will be broadcast nationally on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com.
With an eye on the quick turnaround, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma held the ice time of Crosby and Malkin under 20 minutes apiece Saturday, a rarity for the two star centers. Workhorse defenseman Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Letang played less than 25 minutes each.