With the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins on a nine-game winning streak entering Monday night’s home game against the last-place New Jersey Devils, many a bet was likely placed on Pittsburgh to make it 10 in a row.
Those gamblers collected, but not before losing a few beads of sweat along with the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby netted a goal and an assist, pushing his personal point streak to 16 games, as Pittsburgh hung a 2-1 defeat on the downtrodden Devils at CONSOL Energy Center. The double-digit winning streak matches the feat of the Jaromir Jagr-led Penguins of 1998-99, who also claimed 10 straight.
Also remaining torrid was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, as he earned his ninth consecutive victory and first in his last six tries against New Jersey. The 26-year-old improved to 12-6-1 after stopping 27 of 28 Devils shots, overcoming a strong showing from former Penguin Johan Hedberg in the New Jersey net.
Pittsburgh outshot New Jersey 34-28, but misfired on six power plays, keeping the Devils (8-17-2, 18 points) within range until the final horn. The contributions of Crosby, now with an NHL-leading 48 points, were enough to counteract Brian Rolston’s first-period power-play marker that gave New Jersey its only lead.
With Washington’s shootout loss to Toronto, Pittsburgh (19-8-2, 40 points) also moved one point ahead of the Capitals for first place overall in the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings, who have played four fewer games than the Penguins, are three points back in the chase for the President’s Trophy.
Much like Saturday's 7-2 win in Columbus, the Penguins controlled the first period and it showed on the shot counter. But despite Pittsburgh’s 16-8 advantage in shots, New Jersey escaped the opening frame with a 1-1 tie primarily due to the 37-year-old Hedberg.
Hedberg, who played parts of three seasons with the Penguins, allowed only Chris Kunitz’ one-timer to squeeze past him in the first. The native of Sweden known as "the Moose" got the start in lieu of Martin Brodeur and used his hybrid style to largely stymie his former team despite three first-period power plays.
It was the Devils who made the most of their lone man-advantage opportunity in the first, jumping on top when Rolston hammered a loose puck past Marc-Andre Fleury at 14:20 to give the visitors the lead. Jason Arnott blasted a slap shot from the right point off the body of Rolston, who collected the carom and deposited it from the bottom of the right circle while wincing in pain.
A more intentional bounce helped the Penguins knot the score fewer than two minutes later. Crosby gathered in Pascal Dupuis’ lead pass with his back skate, kicking it to his stick while motoring down the left wing. Once controlling the puck, he slid a centering feed for linemate Kunitz to blast high into the cage from the high slot.
The primary assist on Kunitz’ eighth goal extended Crosby’s point-scoring streak to 16 games and gave him 24 helpers on the season. The Penguins captain would collect his league-leading 24th goal in the second period when Kunitz returned the favor.
After taking Kris Letang’s slapper off his leg, Kunitz positioned himself in front of Hedberg for Goligoski’s drive from the left point. Hedberg, partially screened, could only get his left toe on the shot, directing it to Crosby to the right of the net, who jammed it past a diving Colin White at 12:49.
The Devils pieced together consecutive offensive chances after falling behind for the first time, but Fleury was sharp to keep the Penguins on top. He poke checked the puck away from Travis Zajac on a partial breakaway, then snapped up Dainus Zubrus’ 30-footer with the glove, drawing a hearty cheer.
The third period brought several close calls around the New Jersey net. Letang was denied by Hedberg twice on point-blank chances, Crosby rang a wrister off the right post and Kennedy was stopped from the low slot after a nifty Chris Conner setup.
New Jersey couldn’t squeeze a tying goal past Fleury though, as the Penguins successfully defended two third-period power plays, continuing the penalty-killing unit’s excellence in recent weeks.
“Last year getting down to the Devils was something we didn’t handle very well, but we kept our focus this time. Guys were comfortable enough to play our game and execute defensively when it was close late.” – Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma on winning the first two games of the season series with New Jersey after dropping all six to the Devils last season
Penguins’ Three Stars:
1. Sidney Crosby – Now with nine goals in his last five games and 33 points on his current 16-game streak, No. 87 continues to pull away in the scoring race, now eight points clear of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.
2. Marc-Andre Fleury – Untested for long stretches, “Flower” maintained his focus enough to stop whatever did get through his shot-blocking teammates.
3. Chris Kunitz – Crosby’s linemate added two more points and is playing his best hockey in a Penguins’ uniform.
Devils’ Three Stars:
1. Johan Hedberg – The Penguins’ 2001 postseason hero was in fine form in his first game at CONSOL Energy Center, making all the saves he should and handling a heavy workload with panache.
2. Mattias Tedenby – The diminutive Swedish winger was dashing and darting all night long, noticeably outperforming the maligned Ilya Kovalchuk, who largely drifted on the perimeter.
3. Travis Zajac – He couldn’t score on a quality chance late in the second, but the Manitoban center was around the Penguins’ goal often. He sorely misses the presence of the injured Zach Parise, as do the rest of the Devils.
The Penguins host Toronto (10-12-4, 24 points), fresh off an unexpected comeback win in Washington, at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at CONSOL Energy Center. The Maple Leafs are in last place in the Northeast Division, one point behind Buffalo.