NEWARK, N.J. -- For the Penguins, the last few games of the regular season are about preparation for the playoffs. There are no standings implications, not much in the way of statistical honors to wrap up.
Their opponents in this stretch -- Buffalo Tuesday, New Jersey Thursday and Carolina in the finale Saturday -- are headed nowhere. The Penguins, conversely, have clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference with huge expectations and will open play at home, likely Wednesday, in the postseason.
It's been a formula that hasn't worked very well for the Penguins, who blew a two-goal lead and fell, 3-2, to the Devils at Prudential Center. That was 48 hours after they lost to Buffalo, 4-2 at home.
Those two games make the 3-1 win Monday at Ottawa that completed a seven-game winning streak seem like a different stratosphere.
"I'd like to be able to make more importance in the game, playing a playoff team like we against Ottawa, but that's not the case," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Certainly, we don't like the situation of giving up a lead."
The deciding goal came at 13:50 of the third period when New Jersey winger Ilya Kovalchuk threw a puck toward goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from the right dot. Penguins center Brandon Sutter, marking the Devils' Andre Loktionov as Loktionov raced down the slot, inadvertently tipped the puck past Fleury to make it 3-2.
"It just went off my stick," Sutter said. "They had a guy driving to the net, and I tried to get my stick in the way. Unfortunately, it hit mine. Just a reaction play. It kind of [stinks] when it goes off your own stick, but maybe their guy would have put it in anyway."
The Devils, a year after making it to the Stanley Cup final, will finish their season with a road game Saturday against the New York Rangers. That day, the Penguins will conclude their regular season with a game against Carolina.
"We have one more game," Penguins winger Jarome Iginla said.
"We want to go into the playoffs on the right note and feeling good."
Which might be hard to do if their late slide continues.
"How we play now is going to determine how we play in the playoffs," Sutter said. "We've got to play a little better than that."
New Jersey came out with fire, registering the first eight shots, then came alive again later in the game.
"You know what? I think that [the Penguins] definitely don't want bad habits to creep into their game going into the postseason, and we want to win," Devils winger and former Penguin Steve Sullivan said. "We're a very proud bunch of guys in here. We want to win every single game we play in."
The Penguins scored on their second shot. Winger Matt Cooke, stationed just in front of the Devils net, knocked the puck toward goaltender Johan Hedberg, who tried to smother the puck but inadvertently knocked it across the goal line at 8:52 of the first period.
The Penguins made it 2-0 with a power-play goal at 14:01 of the second period. Kris Letang's sharp stretch pass caught Jussi Jokinen, who scored from the left circle. Fleury also got an assist.
Travis Zajac scored on a screened shot to make it 2-1 at 18:33 of the second period, and David Clarkson tied it, 2-2, with a power-play goal at 3:01 of the third.
"We just weren't good enough, plain and simple," Sutter said. "We didn't play the way we set out."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly First Published April 26, 2013 4:00 AM