Understand that Sidney Crosby is not a goal-scorer.
Explains why the guy has only seven during the Penguins' past five games, including three in their 4-1 victory against New Jersey at Mellon Arena last night.
Need more proof? Crosby's hat trick was just his second in 110 NHL games. That's a pretty nice pace for most mortals, but nothing special for a guy whose every action is measured in superlatives.
Of course, Crosby didn't hurt his playmaker credentials any by setting up the one goal he didn't score against the Devils. His rampage raised his points total for the season to 34; that's five shy of teammate Evgeni Malkin, who had to settle for two assists.
"Those two guys are pretty phenomenal right now," coach Michel Therrien said. "You put those two guys together, and they put on quite a show."
The Penguins expect spectacular things from Crosby and Malkin. What they can't usually count on is production from their power play, which was 1 for 22 in the five games before last night.
But Crosby set up Petr Sykora for a man-advantage goal at 7:26 of the second that proved to be the winner, and the power play looked more menacing than it had in quite a while.
"It felt good," Crosby said. "We did some good things tonight, and we have to build off it."
Getting a power-play goal had to do nice things for the Penguins' psyche, but playing a generally strong third period while trying to protect a lead -- especially after suffering an early lapse -- likely did even more for them.
The Penguins, who had allowed a 3-2 advantage to mutate into a 4-3 loss in Buffalo Friday night, had a 3-0 edge until Mike Rupp beat goalie Dany Sabourin with a wrist shot from the left dot at 1:54 of the third.
Instead of triggering a New Jersey comeback, Rupp's goal gave the Penguins a reminder of how they had to play to avoid another implosion.
"We knew we were starting to get a little sloppy, and it was a wakeup call for us to get back to what we were doing," left winger Matt Cooke said. "We were able to get back on track, to do the things we were doing in the first two periods."
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 14-6-3 and lifted them to within five points of the first-place New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division. The Penguins, who have three games in hand on New York, will visit Madison Square Garden Wednesday, the first stop on a three-game road trip.
Crosby put the Penguins in front to stay with a sensational individual effort 81 seconds after the opening faceoff. After Crosby charged into the New Jersey zone and got around defenseman Paul Martin, Devils goalie Scott Clemmensen poked the puck away from him before Crosby could get off a shot. Crosby chased the puck down below the left circle, however, and threw a blind backhander that slid under Clemmensen and into the net.
The Penguins failed on two power plays during the opening period, but broke out of their rut as the middle of the second approached.
Sykora, stationed at the left side of the crease, chipped in a shot after taking a cross-ice feed from Crosby, who had to get the puck over the stick of a defenseman sliding to block it.
Crosby and Malkin, who have done some exceptional work together lately, teamed up to expand the Penguins' comfort zone during a four-on-four at 11:29.
Malkin lunged at a loose puck in the slot and tried to knock it past Clemmensen with one hand. Clemmensen got his left skate on the puck, but it went to Crosby, who was unchecked at the right side of the crease and tossed it into an open net for his 10th.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published November 30, 2008 5:00 AM