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Devils complete home-and-home sweep of Penguins

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- David Clarkson is doing his best to prove last season was no fluke.

So are the New Jersey Devils.

David Clarkson scored a pair of goals, Johan Hedberg made 23 saves and New Jersey beat the Pittsburgh Penguins by a 3-1 score for the second consecutive day.

The Devils (8-1-3) kept hold of first place in the Eastern Conference, blowing past Pittsburgh (8-5) for the Atlantic Division lead and extending their winning streak to six. Reigning Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey more than avenged its only regulation loss of the season -- 5-1 at Consol Energy Center Feb. 2 -- by limiting a high-octane Penguins team to two goals in two victories over a 36-hour span.

"It was a real gutsy effort," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "We had to dig deep. We didn't have a lot juice left in the tank, and we found a way.

"It's a testament to our character. I think a lot of people thought that maybe our run last year was accidental, and I think you're seeing the depth of this team and how they play."

Ilya Kovalchuk also scored for New Jersey, who overcame a sluggish first period to win in Pittsburgh for only the second time in its past eight games there.

James Neal had a third-period power-play goal for the Penguins, who went into Newark on Saturday riding a five-game winning streak and with the best record in the conference, but emerged from the weekend reeling.

Clarkson scored for the fourth and fifth times over his past six games to give him nine in 12 games on the season. Only Buffalo's Thomas Vanek has more (11).

"He's a good hockey player -- it's not an accident," DeBoer said. "I think he's a little bit of a reflection of our team. I think maybe people thought last year was an accident for him or a fluke and he's showing that it isn't."

Clarkson broke out with a 30-goal season in 2011-12 after having only 52 goals in 298 games over his previous four-plus NHL seasons.

"I think it's being in the right places; it's confidence," said Clarkson, whose 15 points in 12 games almost equal the 18 he put up in 82 contests for a Devils’ team that had a losing record in 2010-11. "The more years you play, and getting to play with guys like (Patrik Elias), Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac ...

"The big thing right now is this team is winning. It doesn't matter who's scoring. The puck's going in, but it doesn't matter who it is. We're doing good things."

New Jersey entered the first intermission with a 1-0 lead despite having only four first-period shots -- tying a season-low for a Penguins’ opponent.

Clarkson opened the scoring 13 minutes when he split Penguins defensemen Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo on a transition play, firing a wrist shot past Tomas Vokoun.

Henrique earned an assist on the play, extending his point streak to five.

Clarkson's second of the game made it 3-0 while on the power play 13:20 into the second. Uncovered while standing in front of the net, Clarkson was able to swat home the rebound of an Elias shot from the point.

Kovalchuk had scored less than two minutes prior, his fourth of the season and fourth point in the past three games.

"We fell behind three goals; it's tough to dig out of that," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who entered the home-and-home on a six-game point streak but was held scoreless by the Devils.

A Neal power-play goal, his third tally in the past four games, just 15 seconds into the third cut the Devils' lead to 3-1.

That would be the only time the Penguins beat Hedberg, the 39-year-old who made his NHL debut with Pittsburgh 12 years ago and led Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference Finals over the ensuing two months. He won against his former team in Pittsburgh for the first time in six starts.

"Pittsburgh's always been a special spot for me," said Hedberg, who has allowed two goals on 74 shots this season. "It was even more so back in the old building (now-razed Mellon Arena) -- I don't have any memories (at Consol Energy Center), but even coming into the city it gives me some flashbacks."

Among Hedberg's better saves were stopping an Evgeni Malkin one-timer on a set-up by Crosby during power play late in the first period. Hedberg also denied a Malkin backhand try eight minutes into the second -- about four minutes after preventing Matt Cooke from tucking in a rebound off the boards from close range.

"(Hedberg) was outstanding," DeBoer said. "He's been like that since the day I got here. He comes off the bench; he gives us games like that. It's because of how hard he works. He's such a good teammate, the guys play hard for him -- you saw them blocking shots. They want to get him a win, and he deserves it."

Martin Brodeur was the beneficiary of Saturday's defensive performance, one that might have been dismissed as a product of the fact the Penguins took 12 minor penalties -- meaning they expended much of their energy working to kill 10 Devils power plays.

There was no doubt Sunday. A much more disciplined Pittsburgh lineup gave New Jersey just one power play -- and it led to the Devils' third goal.

"We didn't spend as much time in the box," said Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis, "but we still spent all that time in our zone."

Pittsburgh managed only 14 shots after the first intermission.

"They did a good job of taking away opportunities for us to get things going by playing in the offensive zone," Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. "And we spent a lot of our energy playing defense."

New Jersey's Stephen Gionta sat out most of the second period after crashing headfirst into the boards when he lost his edge retrieving a puck seconds into the period.

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