PITTSBURGH – After losing just once in 13 days, the Pittsburgh Penguins have dropped two games in less than 36 hours.
Blame the New Jersey Devils for that.
The Devils beat the Penguins 3-1 before 18,658 at Consol Energy Center Sunday night to complete a sweep of their home-and-home series.
New Jersey’s only regulation loss this season was a 5-1 decision to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Feb. 2. They learned from that.
“We just played our game,” Devils forward Adam Henrique said. “We took away their speed and space, and it seemed to work.”
It helped that backup goalie Johan Hedberg turned in a strong first period as the Penguins held a 10-4 edge in shots.
The Penguins had a five-game winning streak before the weekend, but the Devils were able to hold them to two power play goals in the two games and keep Sidney Crosby off the score sheet in both. It’s the first time this season that Crosby has been blanked in consecutive games.
James Neal scored the Penguins’ only goal on a power play just 15 seconds after the start of the third period, with Pittsburgh already trailing 3-0.
Neal dropped to one knee and fired a shot past Hedberg from 15 feet after precise passes from Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins had a prime scoring chance shortly after that as Kunitz spotted Brandon Sutter streaking to the net and tried to send him a pass. Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov was able to dive and break up the pass to thwart the chance.
Malkin one-timed Brooks Orpik’s pass off the outside of the crossbar with about eight minutes left in the third.
“We had chances to get back in the game, even down three,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We got that one, and I think we’re capable of getting two goals. You have to find a way to get the result you want, and we didn’t do that this weekend.”
The Devils usually play suffocating defense, but Dan Bylsma said they used a different strategy to protect their lead this time.
“The thing they did really well was played a lot of shifts in the offensive zone,” Bylsma said. “You play 30 or 40 seconds in the defensive zone, and you just have enough energy to get off the ice. That’s where they did really well, especially in the latter half of the game.
“They did a good job of taking away opportunities for us to get things going by playing in the offensive zone. We had to spend the majority of our energy playing defense.”
David Clarkson had the only goal of the first period, cashing in on a 2-on-1 after defenseman Deryk Engelland got trapped up the ice after he failed to block the puck.
Clarkson broke in with Patrik Elias against Robert Bortuzzo. Clarkson held the puck and wristed a shot past Tomas Vokoun’s glove for the lead at 13:06.
“I should have had it,” Vokoun said. “It wasn’t that tough a shot.”
Ilya Kovalchuk scored for the Devils at 11:27 of the second period, taking advantage of another odd-man rush. That was a result of Stefan Matteau winning a battle for the puck against Paul Martin in front of the Penguins bench.
Kovalchuk broke down the left side with Orpik trying to defend against him and Henrique. Kovalchuk kept the puck and put a quick shot through Vokoun’s pads for a 2-0 lead.
After giving the Devils 10 power play chances in Saturday’s game, the Penguins allowed just one Sunday. New Jersey converted that chance at 13:20 of the second.
Vokoun made the initial stop on Elias’ shot from the right, but he couldn’t control the rebound and Orpik couldn’t clear the puck. It was an easy rebound for Clarkson to tap in as Orpik blasted him, too late to prevent the goal that put the Devils ahead 3-0.
“Nine times out 10, (the puck) hits me and goes into the corner or where I can see it,” Vokoun said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world.”
It’s not uncommon for back-to-back games to have some carryover, and that became apparent as soon as the puck was dropped. Bortuzzo and Ryan Carter dropped the gloves in a fairly even fight.
The Penguins don’t play again until Ottawa visits Wednesday. This is the first time they’ve had consecutive days without a game since Jan. 21-22 after the season opened with consecutive games.
Defenseman Kris Letang missed his third game with a lower body injury. …Crosby had four shots on goal and was 19-5 on faceoffs. … The Penguins are 2-3 at home. … Matt Cooke played his 900th NHL game. … The Penguins have scored on the power play in five straight games. … It was the sixth time New Jersey held its opponent to one goal or none.