NEWARK, N.J. – If the New Jersey Devils get past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs, they will have beaten the defending Stanley Cup champions 10 times.
They already have six in the bag. Patrik Elias scored a breakaway goal and set up another for the Devils, who beat the sloppy Penguins 5-2 on Wednesday night to complete a season sweep of their Atlantic Division rivals.
Whether it translates into post-season success remains to be seen.
“We hope so,” goalie Martin Brodeur said. “If it gives us any edge on them later on, well good.”
New Jersey vaulted into a first-place tie with the Penguins. Both teams have 87 points, but the Devils have played one fewer game. Fans chanted “You can’t beat us!” as the final seconds ticked down.
“The playoffs are a different season,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said, “but our confidence will still dominate at that point.”
Elias assisted on Dainius Zubrus’ brilliant goal in the first period that got New Jersey even, and scored in the middle frame on the Devils’ second breakaway during the same Penguins power play. That gave them a 3-1 lead.
Defenceman Paul Martin returned to the lineup after missing 59 games because of a broken forearm and added a goal in the first. Zach Parise’s 33rd made it 4-1 and chased goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to the bench. Rob Niedermayer’s empty-netter sealed it.
Brodeur earned his 596th NHL victory, one year after breaking the league record for wins.
“It’s kind of a measuring stick a little bit because you’re playing the Stanley Cup champs,” Zubrus said. “Guys get up and play well.”
The Penguins could place more blame on themselves than the beleaguered Fleury, who was yanked with 9:43 left in the second. New Jersey registered only one assist on its first three goals, largely because of Pittsburgh turnovers.
“They had 12 shots on net and five were clear breakaways,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s leaving your goalie out to dry.”
Pittsburgh, which played without star forward Evgeni Malkin (sore foot) is 5-2-1 since the Olympic break. The three losses have come in the past four games.
Chris Kunitz gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 4:01 in, but the Devils roared back in their throwback red and green sweaters. Ruslan Fedotenko cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to 4-2 with 14:37 left.
The game got a bit ugly with 6:29 remaining when Devils forward Rod Pelley drove defenceman Alex Goligoski headfirst into the boards. The hit resembled the one Washington’s Alex Ovechkin delivered to Chicago’s Brian Campbell on Sunday that drew a two-game NHL suspension. Kris Letang charged at Pelley, who received a major penalty for boarding.
“It’s kind of just a reaction,” said Pelley, who wasn’t ejected. “I was already committed to finishing my hit. I kind of had my arms out and I just kind of followed through. Right as he turned I kind of connected with his numbers, and he went in pretty rough.”
Goligoski was shaken up, but returned. Pittsburgh failed to score during the three-minute power play.
New Jersey, which has won four of five, was outshot 26-19. Not that it mattered.
Elias intercepted a pass by Letang at the Penguins blue line. With his back to the offensive zone, Elias sent a pass backward to Zubrus, who skated toward him with steam. Zubrus charged in, deked Fleury onto his back and made it 1-1 with 9:09 left in the first.
“As soon as I looked at the puck, I saw Zubie coming against the flow,” Elias said. “I kind of laid it out there for him, and he made a nice play.”
Martin, out since breaking a forearm on Oct. 24 at Pittsburgh, put New Jersey ahead with 1:42 left in the period.
“I don’t score too many. Definitely big for me just to be back on the ice and with the guys,” Martin said “It’s been a long time. The longest for me in hockey.”
Momentum truly turned when Devils forward David Clarkson was sent off for interference 1:30 into the second – the game’s first penalty.
Fleury made a spectacular save with his outstretched glove while rolling onto his back to stop Travis Zajac’s breakaway. That gave the Penguins a brief reprieve. About 20 seconds later, Elias picked off defenceman Jordan Leopold’s pass at the blue line and raced the other way to make it 3-1 at 3:09.
“We gave up a couple of breakaways on that power play and they got a lot of momentum off that short-handed goal,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We didn’t do a lot of terrible things. The things that we made mistakes on ended up really hurting us. They were big mistakes.”
NOTES: It is New Jersey’s first season sweep of Pittsburgh. The Devils outscored the Penguins 22-5 despite being outshot 187-165. … Malkin, injured Sunday when struck by Letang’s shot, briefly stepped on the ice for Wednesday’s morning skate.