New Jersey Devils right wing Jordin Tootoo fights with Penguins left wing Tom Sestito during the first period.
Mel Evans/Associated Press
Penguins players celebrate a goal by center Evgeni Malkin, during the second period against the New Jersey Devils Sunday, in Newark, N.J.
Mel Evans/Associated Press
New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac checks Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta during the second period.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEWARK, N.J. — This wasn’t just a trend anymore.
It was practically a tradition.
A few times every winter, the Penguins would venture into Prudential Center, and promptly lose their scoring touch.
Then lose a game.
The Devils had beaten them on seven of their previous eight visits and were 16-3-1 in the previous 20 before Sunday, and the Penguins generally were fortunate to scratch out a single goal in those defeats.
Not this time.
Little more than 24 hours after a humbling 4-2 loss to Calgary at home, they scalded Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid for a half-dozen goals in a 6-1 victory.
“It’s a surprise to me,” said center Evgeni Malkin, who scored the Penguins’ first and fourth goals. “We never play 6-1. It’s a huge, big score. Usually, it’s a close game.”
This one wasn’t, and the Penguins picked a good time to claim a couple of points. The victory raised their record to 34-23-8 and, more important, lifted them into the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Detroit.
That this would be unlike so many other games the Penguins have played in Newark previously became evident midway through the opening period, when they scored twice in 38 seconds.
Some seasons, that’s pretty much their Prudential Center quota.
New Jersey plays a disciplined, defensive game that is well-suited to protecting leads, even small ones.
The Devils, though, are not built to play from behind, and this was one of the rare occasions when the Penguins forced them to do that at home.
Malkin put the Penguins in front to stay with a power-play goal at 9:14 of the opening period, and Matt Cullen made it 2-0 when he beat Kinkaid from above the hash marks for what proved to be the winning goal.
“They’re very structured and they play a very good defensive game,” said Penguins center Nick Bonino, who snapped a 31-game goal-less streak. “Almost a boring game because they’re out of their zone quickly and they’re very smart with the puck.
“When you get them down, it makes them force plays a little bit more. If you play structured, like we did, it turns into chances the other way.”
The Penguins were missing left winger Carl Hagelin, who had gone through the league’s concussion protocol a day earlier, but the Devils had an even more significant absence: No. 1 goalie Cory Schneider.
He is expected to miss at least two weeks because of a sprained knee, and the Penguins found Kinkaid far less challenging to solve that Schneider usually is.
“Maybe Schneider not playing helped us a little bit,” Malkin said.
The Penguins professed to be upset by their uninspired performance Saturday against the Flames. The solid, 60-minute performance they turned in against the Devils suggests they actually meant it.
“It’s the right response,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s the response we were looking for.”
Especially against an opponent that routinely torments them on its home ice.
“They’re a hard-working team, especially at home,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “They play a hard-checking game. They’re tough to play against.”
Most of the time, anyway.
But for 60 minutes Sunday, the Penguins dictated how the game would play out.
They limited the Devils to 18 shots on goalie Matt Murray and, when the Devils had a chance to get back into the game on an 82-second 5-on-3 power play in the second period, the unit of Letang, Bonino and Ian Cole didn’t allow a shot.
“They did a great job,” Sullivan said.
So did their teammates. Before and after that penalty-kill.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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