The Penguins played better than they did Saturday afternoon, but they had to settle for a moral victory on Sunday night, as they dropped a 3-1 decision to the New Jersey Devils at home.
James Neal scored his team-leading eighth goal early in the third period to inject some energy into CONSOL Energy Center, but the Devils prevailed over the Pens for the second time in as many days. New Jersey (8-1-3) has won five games in a row and two of its three matchups with Pittsburgh, which dropped to 2-3-0 on home ice.
David Clarkson scored twice, giving him a Devils-best nine goals, and Ilya Kovalchuk netted one to provide more than enough offense for opportunistic New Jersey. The Penguins (8-5-0) outshot the visitors 24-23 but they couldn’t put more than one puck behind old friend Johan Hedberg, who memorably donned the flightless bird from 2001-03.
The 39-year-old Hedberg was at his no-frills best Sunday, employing his steady style to stymie the Penguins, who were also limited to one goal Saturday afternoon by Martin Brodeur.
A day after getting 10 power plays on their home ice, the Devils connected on their only opportunity when Clarkson pounded home the rebound of a point shot with 6:40 to go in the second, putting New Jersey up 3-0. Less than two minutes earlier, Kovalchuk had buried a wrister through Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun’s legs on a 2-on-1 rush. Vokoun made 20 saves in his second loss of the season.
The Penguins started the third period on a power play, and Neal drilled a one-timer past Hedberg 15 seconds into the frame to provide hope of a comeback. However, much like they did in the second period, the Devils sustained consistent offensive pressure with a physical approach in the third. New Jersey did enough of that late to prevent Pittsburgh from stringing together effective shifts.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin weren’t wanting for effort, but they combined for just one assist in 45 minutes of ice time. Chris Kunitz and Malkin earned helpers on Neal’s goal, although Crosby failed to record a point for the second straight game. Crosby continues to lead the Penguins with 17 points, while Malkin has 15.
The Penguins were perhaps most efficient in the first period, when they built a 10-4 advantage in shots. However, Clarkson’s first goal of the night at 13:06 gave the Devils the lone tally of the stanza.
Now three points behind the Devils for the Atlantic Division (and Eastern Conference) lead, the Penguins have two days off before hosting Ottawa on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.