PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins may finally be starting to figure things out. Just in time — they hope — for a playoff push.
“I think we’re making progress,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think we’re getting better. I know there’s another level to this team.”
One Pittsburgh has flirted with reaching during a 5-1-2 surge to the All-Star break. Sidney Crosby picked up his 17th goal of the year for the Penguins, a goal line flip past Cory Schneider on the power play late in the first period. The two-time MVP has scored in each of Pittsburgh’s last seven home games, the longest home scoring streak of his career.
“He’s playing inspiring hockey,” Sullivan said of Crosby. “I think he’s playing with passion. He’s playing hard, he’s playing in the battle areas and he’s getting rewarded for it.”
Crosby downplayed his recent uptick, pointing instead to improved work with the man advantage and all-around better play by a team that’s spent most of the first half as one of the league’s biggest disappointments.
“We’re definitely rolling,” Crosby said. “We have come with that same level of desperation and hopefully the puck will keep bouncing that way.”
Phil Kessel added an insurance goal as Pittsburgh drew even with the Devils for eighth place in the Eastern Conference heading into the All-Star break.
Cory Schneider made 29 saves for New Jersey, which saw its four-game winning streak snapped. The Devils went 0 for 4 on the power play, managing just one shot on goal during 8 minutes with the man advantage.
“We just got outworked,” New Jersey coach John Hynes said. “We didn’t win any puck battles.”
The Penguins are starting to show extended flashes of their formerly high-scoring selves heading into a week-long break. Evgeni Malkin‘s 10th career hat trick powered a comeback victory over Vancouver on Saturday, and Crosby continued his recent surge with the kind of skillfully dirty goal Sullivan promised his club would create if it would stop worrying about style points.
Fleury withstood an early surge, including a memorable stretch in which he was left to fend for himself with his stick hopelessly out of reach following a scrum in front of the net. The Devils fired off 10 of the game’s first 12 shots, but when Fleury’s teammates found their footing, Pittsburgh dominated.
Crosby ended the Penguins’ scoreless streak against Schneider at 135 minutes, 27 seconds when he picked up a rebound off Kris Letang’s shot from the point and flipped it into the net for his ninth in Pittsburgh’s last seven games at Consol Energy Center.
Kessel doubled the lead 15:21 into the second, though Carl Hagelin did most of the work. The forward, acquired from Anaheim on Jan. 16, broke in with Kessel 2-on-1 and spun around New Jersey defenceman Eric Gelinas before slipping the puck to Kessel, who had little trouble beating Schneider for his 15th of the year.
That was enough for Fleury, who received a bit of help from the left post and the crossbar in the third period. The goaltender even rubbed the crossbar affectionately when it kept a New Jersey shot at bay in the final minutes of his 42nd career shutout.
“We came out and played a good first period, but you don’t win games in the first period,” Devils forward Kyle Palmieri said. “We had a couple chances. I had a couple chances. Just wasn’t good enough the rest of the game after that.”
The game was a homecoming of sorts for former Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who helped the franchise to its third Stanley Cup in 2009 before being fired in the summer of 2014 following a second-round collapse against the New York Rangers. The Devils hired Shero last May to rebuild a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since losing the 2012 Cup Finals to Los Angeles.
The reboot appears to be ahead of schedule. New Jersey is right in the mix with just over two months to go in the regular season and despite his contentious exit from Pittsburgh, Shero chatted up Penguins CEO David Morehouse before the game and waved graciously when the in-house camera cut to him during a brief video tribute in the first period.
NOTES: Penguins F Chris Kunitz missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury. Pittsburgh also scratched D Ian Cole and F Sergei Plotnikov. … New Jersey scratched Fs Stefan Matteau and Tyler Kennedy and D Marc-Andre Gragnani. … The Penguins start the post All-Star break at home against Ottawa on Feb. 2. … New Jersey hosts the New York Rangers on the same day. … Fleury took a shot at his first career goal in the final minute only to have his long flip batted down by New Jersey defenceman David Schlemko.