A three-day break worked wonders for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ legs, but it had the opposite effect on their detail work Friday night.
The Pens scored three goals in the first period and got a lot of help from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury the rest of the way as they edged the New Jersey Devils 3-2 at Consol Energy Center.
Pascal Dupuis, Chris Conner and Jayson Megna scored for Pittsburgh, which has won two in a row and seven of eight to open up an eight-point lead over Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division. The seventh-place Devils have lost two straight, although they probably deserved better in the third meeting of the season between the two longtime rivals.
New Jersey got goals from Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus less than a minute apart early in the second period, but the Devils (12-15-6, 30 points) couldn’t generate the tying tally because of Fleury’s latest excellent night. The Penguins netminder stopped 36 shots to boost his season save percentage to .922, placing him firmly in the top half of NHL starting goalies, a position he hasn’t known for a few years.
The visitors outshot the sloppy home side 39-23 and held a dominating 84-41 advantage in attempted shots, the most against the Penguins since Toronto generated 95 attempts in January of 2010. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh (22-10-1, 45 points) moved within one point of idle Boston for the top spot in the conference.
Sidney Crosby extended his lead in the scoring race with an assist on an extremely fortunate goal from Dupuis. Crosby fed the puck through the neutral zone to Chris Kunitz, who flipped a bouncing puck in on Devils goalie Cory Schneider to try to start the forecheck. Kunitz did more than that, as Schneider mishandled it and Dupuis swooped to the net to poke it in 41 seconds into the game. Crosby’s helper boosted his league-leading point total to 44.
His fellow centerman Evgeni Malkin looked primed to score in the first period, creating multiple scoring opportunities, but it was third-line winger Conner who connected on a breakaway to make it 2-0 at 7:55. Brandon Sutter made the play by poking the puck free on the side wall and dishing a perfect pass to a surging Conner near the Devils’ blue line. Conner beat Schneider with a wrister over the blocker.
The rookie Megna deposited the rebound of Simon Despres‘ point shot for a three-goal lead before the period was done, but the Devils found their legs late in the frame and carried that edge over to the second period, in which they enjoyed a 19-5 shot advantage. Elias deflected Anton Volchenkov‘s hopeful shot 3:24 into the second, and we had a game in downtown Pittsburgh.
That feeling was heightened when Zubrus tapped in a loose puck in the crease at 4:20. Jaromir Jagr had wheeled a wrister on goal from the left circle, and it rattled off a couple bodies and in behind Fleury.
The Pens escaped the second period with a one-goal lead, which held up despite 13 more shots from the Devils in the third. Damien Brunner had a breakaway with about 12 minutes left, but Fleury slid over to spectacularly deny his forehand deke. New Jersey’s comeback efforts were dulled in the final three minutes when Adam Henrique took a penalty for playing with a broken stick.
The Penguins make the short trip to Detroit on Saturday to rekindle their feud with the Red Wings, now part of the Eastern Conference. Faceoff at Joe Louis Arena is set for 7 p.m.