NEWARK, N.J. -- The Penguins still haven't forgotten the miseries of Monday evening, when they lived a 2 1/2-hour nightmare on Long Island.
How they jammed a month's worth of letdowns and lapses, breakdowns and blunders into what became a 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders.
It just won't haunt them nearly as much anymore, now that its sequel has come in the form of a 2-0 victory against New Jersey last night at the Prudential Center.
"Those games tear your heart apart," Penguins defenseman Hal Gill said. "But, when you come back and respond the way we did, it's nice."
The Penguins have made a habit of rebounding well -- "That's something we've been doing all year, bouncing back after poor performances," left winger Ryan Malone said. "That's the reason we are where we are" -- and doing it last night allowed them to clinch a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"That's always nice," Gill said. "But I don't think we were that concerned about it. We were more looking for first place."
Looking out for No. 1
The race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference
x - clinched playoff spot
The view of that -- both in the Atlantic Division and in the Eastern Conference -- got quite a bit clearer after the Penguins defeated New Jersey.
They not only raised their record to 44-26-7, but pushed their lead over the second-place Devils in the Atlantic to four points, while moving to within one point of first-place Montreal in the East.
What's more, the Penguins, who lead the victories tiebreaker with New Jersey, guaranteed they will win the head-to-head tiebreaker -- they took nine points out of the season series, the Devils eight -- even if New Jersey catches them in victories.
The Penguins' magic number for clinching first in the Atlantic is nine. If they earn seven points in their final five games, they will be assured of finishing ahead of the third-place New York Rangers, who they will face Sunday and Monday.
The Penguins expected New Jersey, one of the league' most stingy defensive teams, to produce a playoff-style effort, and the Devils didn't disappoint.
"We knew it was going to be a tight-checking game," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "The guys reacted really well."
That was particularly true of his goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 31 shots to earn his fourth shutout. The Devils gave the Penguins little margin for error, but Fleury didn't need any.
"We played a solid defensive game," Therrien said. "And when there were a few breakdowns, Marc-Andre Fleury was outstanding."
The Penguins got Fleury the only goal he needed during a power play at 5:18 of the opening period, as Malone took a feed from Ryan Whitney and beat Devils goalie Martin Brodeur from the left hash mark.
Penguins vs. Devils
Here's a look at the 2007-08 series:
"We kind of rotated their [penalty-killing] box there, and I just popped up in the slot," Malone said.
Whitney, a defenseman, filled his usual spot on the left point of the No. 1 power-play unit, but spent the rest of the game on left wing. An obvious indictment, he acknowledged, of his performance this season.
"[Therrien] isn't putting me there because we need help at forward," Whitney said. "He obviously isn't happy with me. I just have to try to play through it, do my best."
Whitney -- like fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was exiled to left wing earlier this season -- said he never had played left wing before debuting there as a Penguin.
The Devils thought they tied the score at 8:26 of the second, but the goal was disallowed when it was ruled that Arron Asham of New Jersey had bowled over Fleury a second or two before Sheldon Brookbank threw the puck into the net.
"The goalie has to be able to play the puck," referee Eric Furlatt said. "Fleury was still in the crease, and he got bumped out."
Penguins winger Marian Hossa got the only other goal when he scored into an empty net with 41.7 seconds left in regulation. That was the final salve on the wounds opened Monday against the Islanders who, coincidentally enough, will visit Mellon Arena tomorrow evening.
"We can't take any nights off," Malone said. "We have the Islanders coming up, and we saw what happened last time, so we have to get ready."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published March 26, 2008 4:00 AM