These are not the same New Jersey Devils who have been a major force in the NHL for more than a decade.
Their coach is new -- as is the aggressive forecheck he has introduced -- and most of the big names from the Devils' Stanley Cup teams have moved on.
But at least a few vestiges of the Devils' defensive legacy remain, if their performance in the final 20 minutes of a 5-4 victory against the Penguins at Mellon Arena last night is any indication.
The Devils did not hermetically seal the zone in front of goalie Martin Brodeur the way they have for so many winters, but they did shut down the Penguins well enough that Arron Asham's tiebreaking goal midway through the third stood up as the winner.
"Once they got that lead, they went back to their old style," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "All of those guys are capable of playing either way. They have some skill, but they're responsible defensively."
Asham got the winner at 10:38 of the third when, after outracing the Penguins to negate a potential icing, he shook loose at the left side of the crease and steered in a feed from Zach Parise.
"Right now, it seems like every time there's a breakdown, the puck's in our net," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said.
The Penguins have parlayed suspect goaltending and numerous defensive lapses into a 2-3 start, including consecutive losses on home ice.
"Defensively, we're just not there," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "We can't be allowing four or five goals a game and expect to win."
New Jersey threw 35 shots at Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had another lackluster performance -- "He'll get better," Therrien said -- against an opponent more offensively assertive under new coach Brent Sutter than its has been in more than a decade.
"For myself and some of the other guys who have been here a long time, it's definitely uncharted territory," New Jersey center John Madden said. "It's fun -- you get a lot more chances -- but at the same time, when you turn the puck over, you're a long way from your own net."
The guy in that net, Brodeur, was considerably less dazzling than usual, stopping 26 of 30 shots.
"We had to score five goals to win," Sutter said. "The other night, we had to score six. Do we want to do that every night? No. But you never know what's going to be coming at you."
Jay Pandolfo gave the Devils a 1-0 lead at 6:46 of the opening period by sticking a shot over Fleury's left shoulder, and Madden beat Fleury from above the right circle at 9:58.
Maxime Talbot, the Penguins' leading goal-scorer, got his fourth of the season at 15:58, when he went hard to the net and steered a Ryan Whitney pass behind Brodeur.
The Penguins pulled even on a Gary Roberts power-play goal at 17:48, when he set up in the slot and chopped a Sergei Gonchar shot out of the air and bounced it past Brodeur for his first, then got another man-advantage goal 52 seconds into the second period.
Gonchar got his first of the season then, one-timing a slap shot past Brodeur from the high slot after getting a feed from Crosby along the outer edge of the left circle.
New Jersey was able to pull even with a power-play goal of its own at 6:57, as Travis Zajac deflected a Paul Martin shot off Fleury's glove and into the net from the inner edge of the right circle.
That goal came on the second power play in a run of six awarded to the Devils.
The Penguins believed they got a go-ahead goal from Evgeni Malkin at 12:24, when he converted a two-on-zero break with Jordan Staal after Staal pulled in a long lead pass from Brooks Orpik, but the goal was disallowed and the Penguins were assessed a minor for having too many men on the ice.
"It looked like there were a lot of black jerseys [Penguins] on the ice," Sutter said.
New Jersey moved back in front with a controversial goal at 14:48 by Zajac during a rugby-style scrum in the crease. The pileup was highlighted by Brian Gionta laying on top of Fleury, who shoved the net toward referee Dean Morton after he gestured that the goal was valid.
"I though the puck was right there," Fleury said. "I had it for a second, and Gionta pushed me into the back of the net."
Malkin pulled the Penguins even during a five-on-three power play at 18:42, but Asham got the only goal of the final period. And the Devils got two points because of it.
"We have to find a way to win those types of games," Therrien said. "But we're not there yet."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published October 18, 2007 4:00 AM