Penguins beat Devils, 4-2, move a step closer to home ice in playoffs


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It's not as if the Penguins had a lot of time for scoreboard-watching.

Hey, there were penalties to kill. Hits to throw. Goals to score. Points to earn.

Even so, most guys managed to sneak an occasional glance at what was going on elsewhere in the NHL Tuesday night. And they had to like nearly everything they saw.

Their 4-2 victory against New Jersey at Consol Energy Center, coupled with Tampa Bay's 4-2 loss at Buffalo and Philadelphia's 5-2 defeat in Ottawa, could make the final days of this season a lot more interesting than anyone would have expected as recently as last weekend.

And, in one other way, a lot less interesting.

For while they still don't know who they'll face in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there's a pretty good chance that if it's Tampa Bay, the series will start here.

The Penguins' magic number for wrapping up home ice in a best-of-seven with the Lightning has been reduced to two; any combination of two points they earn in their final two games, or that Tampa Bay fails to earn in its final two, will assure them of finishing no lower than fourth in the Eastern Conference.

What's more, the Senators' victory against the Flyers means that the Penguins can spend as much time looking up in the standings as they do looking down. They are just one point in back of Philadelphia, although the Flyers own an insurmountable lead in the regulation/overtime victories tiebreaker.

Nonetheless, recent developments have injected a lot more suspense into that race than could have been anticipated after the Flyers' 5-2 victory here last Tuesday.

"Once we didn't get the win against Philly, I didn't anticipate getting back to one point against them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

"That's a lot closer than I thought we would be, so that does add a little something [to the final two games of the regular season.]"

The first of those two will be Friday night on Long Island. The last time the Penguins ventured there, they and the New York Islanders engaged in a mayhem-filled game that prompted co-owner Mario Lemieux to question publicly his desire to continue his involvement with the league.

How the Islanders will approach the rematch is impossible to predict; Bylsma said his team's objective will be pretty basic.

"Our sole intent going into that building is to win a hockey game," he said. "We're not going to be focused on anything other than playing our game."

The only real negative for the Penguins on this night was learning that they won't have forward Dustin Jeffrey until next season.

He underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and faces a six-month rehabilitation.

The Penguins never trailed against New Jersey after grabbing a 1-0 lead at 17:37 of the opening period, when Jordan Staal scored just their second power-play goal in the past 10 games.

James Neal deftly directed an Alex Kovalev pass to Staal, and he beat Devils defenseman Mark Fraser wide before driving through the left circle and flipping a shot over goalie Johan Hedberg.

"He managed to pull it back and flip it over, which was a really nice play by him," Hedberg said.

That lead held up until late in the second, when New Jersey's David Steckel -- best known in these parts for the nasty blow he delivered to the head of Sidney Crosby late in the second period of the Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Heinz Field -- scored from close range to make it 1-1.

That was just the second goal allowed by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in three starts against the Devils this season, and ended his shutout streak of 145 minutes, eight seconds against them.

The fans, who had largely ignored Steckel to that point in the game, booed vigorously when they realized he was the one who had gotten the goal -- "They have great fans here so I wouldn't expect anything less," Steckel said -- but Pascal Dupuis got them cheering again just over a minute later.

He put the Penguins in front to stay by backhanding the rebound of a Max Talbot shot past Hedberg at 16:11 for his 15th.

Chris Kunitz scored the winner on a close-range backhander at 1:31 of the third. Brian Rolston got New Jersey within one at 4:32, but Dupuis scored into an empty net at 18:59 to close out the scoring.

And to assure that the final days of the regular season will be worth watching.

"We're still just trying to win games," Staal said. "And look at the standings when we're all done."


Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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