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Penguins polish off Devils 4-2

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins knew they would all but assure themselves of playing their first two playoff games at the Consol Energy Center home if they played with a purpose and some persistence in their final regular-season game at home.

Getting a goal from a power play that has been all but invisible since Sidney Crosby was injured? Turns out that wasn't too much to ask for, either.

Jordan Staal scored only the fourth Pittsburgh power-play goal in 21 games, Pascal Dupuis had two goals and brand-new dad Chris Kunitz added a goal as the Penguins all but locked up home-ice advantage for at least the opening round of the playoffs by beating New Jersey 4-2 Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins, fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, opened up a three-point advantage over fifth-place Tampa Bay, which lost 4-2 to Buffalo. Both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have two games remaining, with Pittsburgh playing Friday at the New York Islanders and Sunday at Atlanta.

Might there be more for the Penguins, too?

They also closed to within a point of first-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division, 103-102, as the Flyers fell to Ottawa 5-2 - a loss that also dropped the Flyers behind Washington for the Eastern Conference lead. Pittsburgh looked to be out of the running for the division title after losing to the Flyers 5-2 at home a week ago.

"Am I surprised to be one point away? A little bit," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Once we didn't get the win against Philly, did I anticipate getting back to one point against them? No. .. So it does add a little something to the two games here down the stretch."

"We'll try to put a couple (of wins) together and see what happens.," Dupuis said.

Staal gave Pittsburgh the lead at 17:37 of the first with Nick Palmieri off for interference. Alex Kovalev, playing in his 1,300th career game, made a no-look pass to the neutral zone that James Neal deftly redirected to Staal, who beat Johan Hedberg with a wrist shot under the crossbar from the lower left circle. Hedberg tried but failed to poke-check the puck off Staal's stick.

Staal's 11th goal was only the second in 10 games for Pittsburgh's power play, which has been converting at a league-low 12.9 percent in the three months since Crosby sustained a concussion. Crosby took part in the Penguins' pregame skate, but it remains uncertain when -- or if -- he will return this season.

"Special teams are definitely huge," Staal said. "Our power play's been struggling, but there are a lot of things we want to add on in the last two games and into the playoffs."

David Steckel, the then-Capitals center whose hard hit on Crosby came one game before Crosby's season was halted, tied it 1-1 at 15:08 of the second, resulting in loud boos from the Penguins' 206th consecutive sellout crowd. But Dupuis restored Pittsburgh's lead barely a minute later, stuffing in a rebound of a Maxime Talbot shot that Hedberg couldn't control.

Kunitz, whose wife gave birth to a daughter only hours before game time, made it 3-1 at 1:31 into the third with his 23rd of the season, finishing off an excellent setup by Tyler Kennedy. Brian Rolston got the Devils back to within a goal three minutes later, but Dupuis later finished it off with a shorthanded goal at 18:59 for his 16th.

Pittsburgh completed the season series 4-1-1 against the Devils, who swept all six games between the Atlantic Division rivals last season.

Obviously, these aren't the Penguins that the Devils are accustomed to playing.

"It's a hard-working team. They've kind of changed the way they play without 87 (Crosby) in the lineup," Rolston said. "They really play a hard style of game, real disciplined, and they're playing a good defensive style, too."

Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a big part of that defense, made 22 saves to improve to 35-20-5.

With the Devils out of the running for the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, coach Jacques Lemaire rested goaltender Martin Brodeur, who was credited with a shutout during a 1-0 shootout loss in Pittsburgh on March 25. Brodeur is 8-1-1 with a 0.79 goals-against average in his last 10 starts against the Penguins.

Hedberg made 23 saves but wasn't happy with the way he played.

"Three games to go, we've got to keep going and be a proud bunch of hockey players," Hedberg said.

The Devils, the NHL's lowest-scoring team with an average of 2.05 goals per game coming in, were without forward Zach Parise only one game after he returned from a 65-game layoff that resulted from right knee surgery.

Asked if Parise would play Wednesday against Toronto, Lemaire said, "We'll see how he feels." The Devils also have games at New York on Saturday and at home against Boston on Sunday.

The crowd of 18,331 for the Penguins' final regular-season home game was the second-largest f their first season at Consol. The Penguins have sold out every home game for four consecutive seasons, something they never did in any season before the streak began in 2007.

Kovalev, who had an assist, is fifth among active players in games played, trailing only Mark Recchi of Boston, Mike Modano and Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit and Roman Hamrlik of Montreal.

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