After spotting the Pittsburgh Penguins a one-goal lead less than five minutes into the game, the retro-looking, red, white and green-clad New Jersey Devils erupted for four unanswered goals en route to a 5-2 victory before 17,625 celebrants on St. Patrick's Day at the Prudential Center.
The victory moved the Devils past the Penguins into first place in the Atlantic Division. More important, the club now holds the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Devils and Penguins each have 87 points, but the Devils own the tiebreaker by virtue of having played one fewer game; they also have one more victory.
New Jersey outscored the Penguins 22-5 while winning all six games.
Following their morning skate on Wednesday, Penguins' players talked of possibly making a statement in the final game between the teams. Instead, the Devils -- wearing their original colors, rather than the red, black and white they've worn exclusively since 1992-93 -- made a statement of their own.
"Winning all six games says we're able to play against top teams and that's important to know when you get to the playoffs," goalie Martin Brodeur said. "You have to be able to play a different style of hockey in the playoffs. I thought our transition game was tremendous, like most of the games against these guys. They are a high-powered offense and even though (Evgeni) Malkin was out, they competed well. We just did the small things around the ice very well."
Malkin sat out with a foot injury, but the Penguins jumped in front anyway at 4:01 of the opening when Chris Kunitz ripped a long rebound past Brodeur. But aided by a raft of turnovers, the Devils then took command. Dainius Zubrus evened the score at 10:51, breaking in alone after a takeaway by Patrik Elias and going backhand-forehand before beating Marc-Andre Fleury.
The home team then got a lift from defenseman Paul Martin, who sent the crowd into a frenzy after scoring his first goal in almost a year.
Martin, who hadn't played since Oct. 24 (missing 59 games) due to a broken forearm, picked off Bill Guerin's errant pass, broke into the Pittsburgh zone and beat Fleury low to the long side with a wrist shot from near the right faceoff dot at 18:18 to give the Devils a 2-1 lead. It was the sixth-year defenseman's first goal since March 27, 2009.
"I stepped up on a broken play and the puck on my stick and (Rob Niedermayer) yelled to get going since there was no one there, so I got going," Martin said. "I had room and tried to put everything I could on it and found a spot. It was a good feeling after that long absence to get that and contribute."
Needless to say, the Devils were glad to have Martin back.
"He showed why he's a great defenseman," said Elias, the game's first star. "He calms the game down for us. He makes those outlet passes and jumps into the play. After missing so many games, he had a lot of adrenaline to get him going. I told him to keep it simple and he did."
Brodeur preserved the lead before the first intermission when he denied Ruslan Fedotenko on a 2-on-1 break with Matt Cooke with just 51 seconds remaining in the period.
Brodeur, who also went old school by donning a replica of the mask he wore in his first NHL game on March 26, 1992, made 24 saves to earn his 39th victory of the season. His best stop came 3:40 into the third when he denied Mark Eaton on a wraparound attempt, diving to his left to stop the puck with his left arm.
"I went down early and he didn't have anywhere to go," Brodeur said. "He wrapped it around hard but it was tough for him to raise it, so I laid down my arm and glove and stopped it around the goal line."
The Devils extended the lead to 3-1 on a shorthanded goal by Elias 3:09 into the second. Elias stepped in front of a pass attempt by Jordan Leopold along the Devils' blue line, roared in alone on Fleury and beat him with a wrist shot for his 13th of the season.
The goal came just 21 seconds after Fleury stopped Travis Zajac's shorthanded breakaway attempt with his left glove following a takeaway from Gonchar along the Devils blue line.
"I thought (Fleury) made a good save on (Zajac's) shot and, on mine, I just tried to fake and freeze him and then shot toward the blocker," Elias said. "It wasn't perfect but it went in."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma gave Fleury the rest of the night off following Parise's goal after his starter was victimized for four goals on just 13 shots. In five appearances against the Devils this season, Fleury is 0-5 with a 4.54 goals-against average and .838 save percentage (18 goals on 111 shots).
"If you want to talk about forced errors and unforced errors, this is a team that is good at forcing teams into errors. But I don't think the errors that we had were forced," Bylsma said. "I think they had 12 shots on net and five I think were clear breakaways. That's not anything you want to give your goalie. That's leaving your goalie out to dry."
With Brent Johnson (5 saves) in goal, the Penguins made it 4-2 at 5:23 of the third when Fedotenko connected off a snapshot from the right circle with Cooke and former Devil Michael Rupp stationed in front of Brodeur. As the Penguins attempted to mount some sort of comeback, frustration started to build.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, battling for position in the slot, was then whistled for interfering with Brodeur at 9:12. Then, with 6:29 remaining, New Jersey's Rod Pelley checked Pens defenseman Alex Goligoski face-first into the boards in the right-wing corner, triggering a get-together by players from each side. Pelley was issued a five-minute major for boarding and Pittsburgh's Kris Letang was given two minutes for roughing -- giving the Pens a 3-minute power-play with 4:29 on the clock.
The Devils did a superb job of keeping much of the action to the perimeter during the Penguins' long advantage before Niedermayer sealed the deal with an empty-net goal with 1:13 remaining. The Penguins finished 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
"I'm definitely not trying to hit anyone from behind; I'm just trying to play honest," Pelley said. "It happened so quick, it's just a reaction, I was already committed to position my hit and had my arms out and I just kind of followed through as he turned and I connected with his numbers and went in pretty rough. It was a great kill and great effort by the guys."
It was exactly one year ago to the day, March 17, 2009, when Brodeur became the NHL's all-time leader in wins with his 552nd career triumph in a victory over the visiting Blackhawks. In that same game, Elias became the Devils franchise all-time leader in points with his 702nd.
"I thought there was similar energy in this game," Brodeur said. "It was St. Patrick's Day but we were wearing the red and green jerseys (on Wednesday). The fans were loud and our performance made for a great night."
Added Elias: "It was nice after the first 6-7 minutes of the game. We did a good job on the penalty-kill and didn't waste any energy. The fans had a good time and we had a good time and the (retro) jersey's looked awesome out there."