NEWARK, NJ – Patrick Elias’ shot climbed higher and higher, arcing over the heads of the Penguins’ defenders, until the puck found its way back to the ice inside the empty Pittsburgh net.
Like Elias’ final tally of the game, the New Jersey Devils played above and beyond the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday, winning 4-1 at the Prudential Center.
The Devils are 8-1 in their last nine games, including a five-game road trip, with the only loss handed down by the Pens on their home ice.
The importance of the divisional game was not lost on the Devils.
“For us, it was important to play a good game. In these divisional games, it’s important to play a full 60 minutes,” Captain Jamie Langenbrunner said.
The first 20 minutes of the bout was very evenly matched. Both teams were able to put 10 shots on goal, with no success on either side. New Jersey and Pittsburgh even matched penalty-for-penalty, resulting in one power play opportunity for each.
League-leading scorers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were each held to one shot during the first period.
“I thought Zubs’ line played a lot against (Crosby), and they played well against him,” Coach Brent Sutter said of the Dainius Zubrus-led line.
In the second period, Travis Zajac helped his mates take off with some old-fashioned fundamentals and awareness.
Zajac and Langenbrunner rushed the puck into the zone, and Zajac launched the puck towards the net. The puck ricocheted off of the back boards, spinning Pitt goalie Dany Sabourin around.
Before Sabourin could reorient himself, Zajac followed his shot and put the puck into the net with under three minutes to go in the second session.
“It took a hard bounce off the boards and no one on the Penguins was expecting it,” Zajac said of his fifth goal of the season.
Colin White and Langenbrunner were credited with assists on the 4-on-4 goal. White also earned a point for assisting on Elias’ empty-netter.
Zajac’s goal seemed to energize the Devils’ offense. Moments after New Jersey took the lead, Zach Parise made a breakaway attempt, forcing Sabourin to make a tough kick save.
Zubrus also had a great chance in the net before the second horn blew. Hovering near the crease, Zubrus knocked the puck behind Sabourin, but Brooks Orpik was there to sweep the puck out before it reached the net.
The momentum remained with New Jersey in the third period, as the Devils broke the game open. Parise tipped in a shot from Bryce Salvador from the blue line with 2:18 gone in the third.
Langenbrunner had dug the puck out from behind the net and sent the puck up to Salvador at the left point. The goal marked Parise’s team-leading 16th score of the season.
Zubrus also continued his offensive tear in the third. Brian Gionta zipped down the left boards with the puck and made a cross-ice pass to Zubrus. Zubrus took the one-timer from the right circle, and the puck slid past Sabourin’s skate and in.
The Devils defense held Malkin to three shots on goal, and Crosby to two. New Jersey net minder Scott Clemmensen said he recognized the signs of frustration in the young superstars.
“In the second, I could hear (Crosby) talking back to the ref, and then when he grabbed Gionta, you could tell we were getting to him,” Clemmensen said, referring to the simultaneous roughing and holding penalties called on Crosby in the third.
Clemmensen held his own against the Pens, and held onto a shutout late into the game by shutting down the Pens anytime they crossed the blue-line.
Jordan Staal looked like he scored moments into the second period. Staal took a close range shot that went up over Clemmensen’s shoulder. The puck hit the crossbar and came down, and Clemmensen swiped the puck out of the air and covered.
The Devils back-stopper also made a terrific play at 14:30 in the second. Crosby forced a two-on-one while the Penguins were shorthanded made a backhanded attempt.
Clemmensen blocked the puck, and the Devils were able to push the puck back into their own zone.
“We never gave them much, and if there was something there, Clemmer did a real good job,” Sutter said.
Despite his terrific play, Clemmensen’s bid for a shutout ended with just less than four minutes to play in the game.
Malkin brought the puck up to the circles, where he got tied up in front of the net. Malkin spun around and backhanded a pass to the other side of the net, where Matt Cooke knocked the puck in.
Malkin leads the league in assists with 35, followed by Crosby with 38 helpers.
No New Jersey goaltender has posted a shutout since Martin Brodeur was injured in the beginning of November. Despite giving up the goal, Clemmensen was pleased with the game.
“Shutouts are nice, but especially against this time, I’m happy to get a win,” Clemmensen said.
He added, “Obviously the goal that went in was a little cheesy, but I can’t complain.”
Clemmensen’s teammates also had praise for his efforts.
“We’re excited about him. He gives us a chance every night,” Langenbrunner said of the goaltender.
The winning ways of the New Jersey Devils have lifted the team to within eight points of division-leading New York Rangers. The Blueshirts visit the Prudential Center Friday night.
With the way the team is playing, the Devils believe they can compete with anyone.
“We’re committed to the five guys, six with Clemmer, on the ice at all times. We just trust in each other and play for one another,” White said of the team’s success. “We’re having fun out there- that’s what‘s important, having fun.”