It wasn’t supposed to be this easy for the Penguins. Not with top guns Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup and a murderous schedule that would wear out even the hardiest team of Alaskan sled dogs. But the plucky Pens continue to find a way. Powered by a three-goal third-period outburst and a pair of tallies by Jordan Staal, the black and gold skewered the Devils, 4-1, to tighten its grip on first place in the competitive Atlantic Division.
Skating before their 215th consecutive home sellout crowd, the Pens snatched the lead at 6:07 of the first period while working with a man advantage. Richard Park gathered in a pass from Matt Cooke along the left sideboards fed the puck to Staal at the far side of the face-off circle. The big center snapped the puck high over ex-Penguin Johan Hedberg’s glove hand for his fourth goal of the season.
Following the game-opening goal, the Devils systematically began to tilt the ice in their favor. Coach Peter DeBoer’s squad repeatedly blunted the Pens’ offensive thrusts with diligent backchecking, limiting the home team to just four shots during a dull second period.
If the second 20 minutes was an ode to Devils-style hockey, the final period harkened back to the days of Mario Lemieux and fire-wagon hockey. The Pens appeared to catch a break early in the frame when Patrik Elias drew a double-minor for high-sticking Steve Sullivan. However, in an astounding bit of chicanery, the Devils sent former Pen Petr Sykora to the box instead. As if scripted, Elias scored a shorthanded goal courtesy of a dreadful giveaway by Paul Martin.
“We weren’t too happy on the bench,” Staal said. “Obviously, it’s tough for the refs to catch the right guy sometimes. It was tough to see the guy who should have been in the box score the goal.”
Stung by the unfortunate turn of events, the Penguins responded like champions. Eighty seconds later Chris Kunitz restored the Pens’ lead with a one-timer from the right face-off dot.
“I think Kuny had a great goal to kind of keep us going, put us back in the right direction,” Staal said. “And from then on I felt like we pretty much dominated.”
At 4:17 Staal struck for his second goal of the night—and 100th of his career—with a move that would’ve done Mario proud. Deftly shifting the puck from backhand to forehand to backhand again, No. 11 wheeled around Bryce Salvador and flipped the puck over Hedberg’s outstretched glove. Chris Neal put the game out of reach midway through the period when he dug the puck out of a scrum in the right-wing corner and beat Hedberg with a crackling wrist shot.
Staal (two goals) earned the No. 1 star … The Penguins were two-for-six on the power play (24 percent on the season) … Marc-Andre Fleury (23 saves on 24 shots) was voted No. 2 star … Sullivan played in his 900th career NHL game … The Pens won 56 percent (28 of 50) of the draws … Park, who has done a superb job of filling in for Malkin, registered two assists to earn the No. 3 star … Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu, Ben Lovejoy, and Malkin were scratches.
The Penguins (6-2-2) trek to Long Island Tuesday night for the first game of an away-and-home set with the New York Islanders (3-3). The Pens lead the all-time series with the Islanders, 99-89-28.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.