PITTSBURGH – Anyone wondering why the Pittsburgh Penguins are off to such a strong start despite being without two of the NHL's biggest stars need not look much beyond Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and James Neal.
Already, the Atlantic Division rival New Jersey Devils are warning the rest of the League about the dangers of disregarding the Penguins' abundant depth and ability to play with patience.
The Penguins, off to a 6-2-2 start despite being without superstar Sidney Crosby all season and former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin for most of it, relied on Fleury's steadiness and Staal's two goals to defeat New Jersey 4-1 Saturday night at Consol Energy Center and win their third in a row.
Neal added his eighth of the season and seventh in as many games, walking in from behind the net almost uncontested for the Penguins' third goal in just over six minutes during a high-scoring final period that contrasted to the tightly played first two periods.
So much for the days when the Devils' deliberate, offense-stuffing style once discouraged the Penguins' goal scorers, got them out of their game and, quite often, defeated them. The Penguins have won four out of five against New Jersey over the last two seasons after losing all six to them in 2009-10.
"They play a lot more defensive now. They play smart, they play well positionally and they've shown their ability – they can still score with those guys out of the lineup," Devils captain Zach Parise said.
Chris Kunitz had put the Penguins ahead to stay at 2-1, answering Patrik Elias' shorthanded goal at 1:47 of the third with a power play goal 80 seconds later. Staal then scored his fifth of the season and 100th of his career by beating goalie Johan Hedberg on a backhander at 4:17 of the period. Neal scored at 9:14.
Staal, a former Selke Trophy finalist, played perhaps his best two-way game of the season, constantly controlling the tempo with his strong positional play and his shutdown defensive abilities.
"He's a great two-way player – he never takes any chances, is always the first one back in the D-zone," said defenseman Kris Letang, who returned after serving a two-game suspension for a boarding penalty. "You can rely on him to play against the top line. He's throwing his body out there, he's using his speed."
Staal also is scoring, something the Penguins have been hoping he would do consistently since he had a career-high 29 goals as an 18-year rookie in 2006-07. He hasn’t had more than 22 since.
"He was amazing," Fleury said. "It seemed like he was everywhere out there."
The Devils, playing their second game in as many nights and missing their two top centers, Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson, because of injuries, had plenty of chances – 19 shots in the first two periods alone and 24 overall – but didn't do much with them.
Fleury had much to do with that. He improved to 5-2, a turnaround from his 1-6 start of a season ago, when he wound up being chosen as the Penguins' MVP.
"Any year you don't want a start like that (in 2010-11), but I came in not trying not to think too much about it – just go out and play and try to get some wins," Fleury said.
Fleury's best save was against Adam Henrique midway through the first period, on a breakaway created when forward Steve Sullivan didn't pick up Henrique as the puck reached the offensive zone.
"He's our best player," Kunitz said of Fleury said. "He keeps us in every game. He can make a spectacular save at any time."
Henrique, just up from the minors to replace the injured Josefson, felt the game might have swung the Devils' way if he had scored. Josefson is out for 3-4 months with a broken right clavicle that occurred in a 4-3 shootout loss to San Jose on Friday.
"I thought I out-waited him (Fleury), but he got me," said Henrique, who showed some patience of his own by flying from Albany to Atlanta to Pittsburgh just to get to the game. "You get chances like that; obviously you want to bury them. You don't come by those too often in a game."
At the time, the Penguins led 1-0 on Staal's power-play goal at 6:07 of the first – one of nine power play goals so far for a team had the NHL's worst power play last season after Crosby was lost to a season-ending concussion on Jan. 5.
"I liked how we were playing," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who didn't like that the NHL's No. 2 penalty-killing unit gave up two power play goals. "I liked where we were at."
Fleury made the lead stand up until Elias – who apparently should have been in the penalty box – scored shorthanded. Petr Sykora drew a four-minute high-sticking penalty for a hit on Sullivan, even as the Penguins' bench screamed that it was Elias who should have been sent off – as TV replays confirmed.
Sykora said he deliberately went to the box so the Devils' penalty-killing unit wouldn't be without Elias.
"I just got the idea and it worked out and he (Elias) actually got a goal there," Sykora said. "After that, he (the referee) came up to me, he wasn't happy and I apologized to him and it was unrespectful by me."
While the Devils may have gotten away with one there, Kunitz quickly came back to score during the power play with a rising one-timer from right circle that sailed over Hedberg's glove and under the crossbar.
Staal scored his second when the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, who is playing defenseman-like minutes, left him unprotected while trying to scramble off the ice as the play was developing.
The Penguins, playing an NHL-leading 10th game in 17 days, didn't draw a penalty until Paul Martin's interference penalty at 10:49 of the third. Pittsburgh's League-leading penalty-killing unit has allowed one power play goal in 32 attempts.