The Penguins entered their game against New Jersey last night with a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Devils.
They figured New Jersey would compete all over the ice, to be stingy in its own end and get quality goaltending from Martin Brodeur.
What they didn't anticipate -- or certainly shouldn't have, anyway -- was that they would run off six unanswered goals, including five in the third period, in what became a 7-1 victory at Mellon Arena.
"Obviously, we put some pucks on the net, and they went in," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "That's not something that happens a lot. It was one of those games when everything seemed to work for us."
The Penguins (43-25-7) won't complain about the timing, because the victory lifted them into first place in the Atlantic Division. They are two points ahead of the Devils, with two weeks left in the regular season.
They also stayed within a point of Montreal, which is first in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins have a game in hand on the Canadiens, as well as an edge in the victories tiebreaker.
The Penguins have lowered their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to two, and can do that as early as tomorrow, when they will visit the New York Islanders at 7:08 p.m.
Center Evgeni Malkin scored the Penguins' fifth and sixth goals and set up their seventh, giving him 102 points. He trails Washington left winger Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's leading scorer, by four points.
"I didn't even think about [getting 100 points] at the start of the season," Malkin said through translator George Birman.
Despite his three-point rampage, Malkin had no role in the decisive sequence, as Dupuis and Ryan Malone teamed up for a short-handed goal late in the second period to break a 1-1 tie.
They were on a two-on-one rush against New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin when Dupuis slid a cross-ice pass to Malone, who beat Brodeur from the inner edge of the left circle at 16:14.
By the time Malone's shot reached the back of the net, the Penguins had momentum that would carry them through the balance of the evening.
"That changed the complexion of the game," New Jersey coach Brent Sutter said. "From that point on, we made a lot of mental mistakes. We had lots of breakdowns."
And most of them, it seemed, led to Penguins goals, as they scored on five of 13 shots in the final period.
New Jersey had a major blunder early, too, when defenseman Andrew Greene -- taking his first shift after being a healthy scratch for the previous four games -- directed a Jarkko Ruutu centering pass between Brodeur's legs 90 seconds after the opening faceoff.
New Jersey got that goal back in spectacular fashion at 9:04, as Brian Gionta capped a short-handed rush by deflecting a John Madden feed out of midair and over the left shoulder of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
"That was pretty weird," Fleury said.
So was the way the game played out after Malone made it 2-1. He expanded their comfort zone with a power-play goal three minutes into the third -- and just eight seconds after New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus was penalized for hooking Jordan Staal -- by fighting off Devils defenseman Mike Mottau in the slot and deflecting a Sergei Gonchar shot out of the air and past Brodeur.
Dupuis put the game out of reach at 4:51, sweeping a shot from along the goal line to the right of the net off of Brodeur's stick and into the net.
Seventy-two seconds after Dupuis scored, Sutter replaced Brodeur with Kevin Weekes, who entered the game just in time to be torched twice by Malkin.
Malkin put the Penguins up by four with a wrist shot from outside the right dot at 8:24, then scored through traffic from the right hash at 11:21 to put the Penguins up, 6-1. And with 102 seconds left in regulation, he set up Petr Sykora, who closed out the scoring by golfing in a shot from the inner edge of the left circle. Those goals gave the Penguins their final margin of victory and assured they'll be in first place when they face the Devils Tuesday night in Newark, but they realize the battle for first place did not end last night.
"It's not over," Dupuis said. "We have to take it game by game. We play these guys in [two] days. We have to refocus, recharge the batteries and see what's going to happen."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published March 23, 2008 4:30 AM