Nico Hischier leads Devils past weary Penguins, 5-2
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The New Jersey Devils spent years staring up at the standings at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not so much anymore.
The young Devils are surging. The Penguins, meanwhile, are skidding. And a playoff berth that's been a rite of spring in Pittsburgh for the better part of two decades may be in jeopardy.
Nico Hischier scored his 100th career goal as part of a two-goal, two-assist night, Vitek Vanecek made 29 saves and the Devils breezed past the weary Penguins 5-2 on Saturday.
“We played a real solid third period, solid 60 minutes,” New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said.
Dawson Mercer had a goal and an assist for the Devils. Jesper Bratt and Dougie Hamilton also scored for New Jersey, while All-Star center Jack Hughes had two assists in his return from a lower-body injury as the Devils improved to an NHL-best 21-4-3 on the road.
“Not my best, but you know, you miss a week or two and we had the All-Star break too, so really that’s one (game) in pretty much two or three weeks,” said Hughes, who missed four games. "That’s a good start and it’s a really big win for our team.”
Evgeni Malkin scored twice for Pittsburgh to reach the 20-goal plateau. Dustin Tokarski stopped 38 shots but it wasn't nearly enough as the Penguins lost for the third time in four games.
Less than 24 hours after squandering a pair of two-goal leads in a loss to the New York Islanders, the Penguins looked a step behind the fresher, sharper Devils.
“We played pretty well on Long Island and then for at least for the first half tonight,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "Hopefully we can (gain) something from that. But we’ve go to find some consistency in our game.”
The Devils, in second place in the Metropolitan behind Carolina, appear headed to their first playoff appearance since 2018.
Pittsburgh's postseason prospects are far murkier. The Penguins have reached the playoffs in 16 straight seasons, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
Yet the Penguins find themselves in a scramble for one of the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots thanks in part to an eight-game losing streak against Metropolitan Division opponents.
“We’re going to see what we’re made of here down the stretch,” Crosby said. "That’s the situation we’re in and hopefully it brings out the best in us.”
Malkin gave Pittsburgh an early jolt when the Russian star tapped in a pass from Rickard Rakell 3:33 into the first to give him 20 goals for the 14th time in his 17-year career, third most among active players behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin (18) and Crosby (15).
Yet as has been the case most of an erratic season, the Penguins let the Devils back into the game almost immediately.
Mercer tied it just 1:20 later following a sequence that began with Pittsburgh defenseman Chad Ruhwedel getting tangled up with a linesman deep in the Penguins' zone. A turnover soon followed and Mercer emerged from a scramble in front to rip a shot by Tokarski.
The Devils took firm control in the second. Hamilton put New Jersey in front 3:27 into the period when he glided down the left circle, received a pass from behind the net by Hischier and fired a shot that zipped by Tokarski.
Pittsburgh's middling power play had a chance to tie it a few minutes later only to surrender a two-on-one rush that ended with Yegor Sharangovich feathering a backhand pass to Hischier streaking down the left side. Hischier had little trouble beating Tokarski for the captain's 100th career goal.
“Definitely a goal I’ll never forget, that’s for sure,” Hischier said. “It’s something that no one’s going to take away from me. So I’m pretty happy about it.”
Bratt's 22nd goal 8:39 into the third pushed New Jersey's lead to three as the Devils moved to 22-0-2 when leading after two periods, the second-best record in the NHL behind Boston.
NOTES: Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry missed his ninth straight game with an upper-body injury that's required him to meet with medical professionals inside and outside the organization. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Jarry “is making progress” but there remains no timetable for his return. ... Pittsburgh D Brian Dumoulin left in the third period with what appeared to be a lower-body injury.
Devils: Begins a four-game homestand on Sunday when Winnipeg visits.
Penguins: Host the Islanders on Monday.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press