NEWARK , N.J. -- The soft, the tired and the weak are not welcome in this two-team battle for the Atlantic Division title.
All that became abundantly clear Friday night at PrudentialCenter, where the Devils outlasted the first-place Penguins for a 3-1 victory in a nasty, penalty-rich game.
The Devils moved within two points of the Penguins for first place in the division -- and they have two games in hand. One of those will be used on Saturday when they head out to Long Island for a game against the last-place Islanders.
The Penguins play Sunday in TampaBay before coming back to Newark for their regular-season finale against the Devils on Wednesday. New Jersey also hosts Boston on Monday before the Penguins come to town.
"This is getting to be the nitty-gritty of getting points and these points are obviously going to be huge," Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "The two of us realize the importance of winning the division, what it could mean going forward, and I think you saw a battle (because of that).
"We're fortunate to get them on a back to back night (Pittsburgh lost in Carolina on Thursday), but hey, you play the schedule. We did a good job of responding to a playoff-intensity game."
Ilya Kovalchuk, who hasn't played in too many of those, and Andy Greene each scored in the first 10 minutes of the third period to turn a 1-1 tie into the final score.
Kovalchuk finished with three points thanks to his assist on Greene's goal and another on Patrik Elias' goal 1:43 into the game. Greene also had an assist on Elias' goal.
"I think it was a total playoff atmosphere," Kovalchuk told NHL.com. "That was a four-point game. They're two points ahead of us but we have a couple of games on them and we have to take advantage of those games to be in first place in our division."
Martin Brodeur continued his personal dominance over the Penguins with 34 saves to improve to 5-0 with a .981 save percentage and 0.60 goals-against average against Pittsburgh this season. He has allowed just three goals on 161 shots.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who had a brilliant second period with 19 saves -- including a great stop on Kovalchuk's penalty shot with 1:49 left -- finished with 29 saves.
However, Fleury was flabbergasted when the officials didn't waive off Kovalchuk's goal at 9:59 of the third period. He thought Travis Zajac should have been called for interference because his stick hit Fleury's glove as he attempted to deflect Kovalchuk's shot.
Fleury was so mad that he tried to break his stick over the top of the goal.
"Yeah, he hit my glove. You can see it on the replay that he pushed it in," a still disgruntled Fleury said in the dressing room. "The ref said he didn't hit my glove. I told him he did, and he said no. When he watches the replays he's going to see my glove move away from the puck."
Fleury basically had no chance to stop Greene's monster slap shot that wound up as the game-winner 2:06 into the third. He kicked Kovalchuk's shot from the left side out with his left pad, but the puck came right to Greene at the top of the right circle and he blasted.
"It was nice, just sitting on a T there so I just tried to shoot it," Greene told NHL.com. "I had the same opportunity in the first period and I hit the crossbar. I knew he'd go down so I was just trying to throw it up there as hard as I could."
Between the goals, including ones scored by Elias and Sidney Crosby just 42 seconds apart early in the first period, the game was especially nasty.
There were 20 penalties totaling 73 minutes. Fifteen of those went to Craig Adams, who got a five-minute major and a game misconduct 4:10 into the second period when he was ejected for charging Martin Skoula after an icing whistle.
Adams walked down the tunnel with a shocked look on his face and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was miffed on the bench.
"I didn't expect a major," Bylsma said before stopping himself from giving any further opinion about the call.
In all, 49 penalty minutes were doled out in the second period alone, but an obvious sign of the bad feelings between the teams came after Greene scored.
Langenbrunner and Chris Kunitz battled all the way through the open door to the Penguins' penalty box and by the time were finally broken up they were each on the other side of the boards.
"That was not a good spot to be in," Langenbrunner joked.
The Penguins somehow wound up with a power play because not only did Langenbrunner get two minutes for roughing, he also received two minutes for high sticking. Kunitz only got a minor for slashing.
However, Pittsburgh, already 0-for-3 with the man advantage, couldn't get solve Brodeur.
"He's played really well against us this year, but I don't think we have allowed that to frustrate us," said Crosby, who did beat Brodeur with a low shot through the five-hole 2:25 into the first period for his League-leading 45th goal of the season. "I think we have done some really good things and kept coming at him, but he's kept responding. We're hoping eventually we're going to get some more behind him."
The Devils had plenty of chances to take a lead into the second intermission, but Fleury and the Penguins' penalty-killers were great. Fleury stopped five shots during the five-minute power play and another two while Mike Rupp sat in the box for slashing Brodeur at 11:53. He also stoned Kovalchuk on a penalty shot with a left pad save at 18:11.
"We had to kill off a lot of penalty minutes, and I don't quite think we were able to really play in the offensive zone like we'd like to," Bylsma said. "Their team did a good job of not allowing us to get to our game, even in the third period."
They'll get another crack at it just five nights from now. They better come with guns blazing.
"Probably another notch up even," Crosby said about what the intensity and nastiness will be like Wednesday. "That's just natural with both teams battling for spots."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl