EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - If the last two games are any indication, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins could go a long way in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault stopped 25 shots for his first shutout in more than three years and the Penguins completed a two-night sweep of the conference's top two teams with a 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.
"It's awesome, the past two nights," Thibault said after giving starter Marc-Andre Fleury a break. "I thought we played great last night against Buffalo even though it was 5-4, and to come here to New Jersey and shut them out, it's tremendous. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but this is a good start."
The Penguins' third straight win pulled them to within four points of the first-place Devils (92) in the Atlantic Division. Both teams have 10 games left in the regular season.
"We are playing good hockey," Crosby said. "There have been times the past few weeks where we fought our way back or got a good bounce and got two points. That was hard work. We didn't play 60 minutes. That can burn you. Now we are playing 60 minutes and getting rewarded for it."
Jarkko Ruutu scored a fluky game-winner off a Devils' stick and set up an insurance goal by Erik Christensen as the Penguins won for the fifth time in six games (5-0-1). Jordan Staal also scored.
Martin Brodeur made 19 saves for New Jersey, which had a two-game winning streak ended and failed to tie Buffalo for first overall in the East. The Sabres have a game in hand.
"I think we missed a bunch of good opportunities early in the game," said Devils centre John Madden, who had the biggest chance on a second-period breakaway. "They came out flat and we missed some good opportunities. They just kept chipping away, the way they should have after their game last night. They kept putting the puck deep and we kept turning it over."
Thibault played a good positional game in posting his first shutout since Oct. 8, 2003, stopping Sergei Brylin and Zach Parise on good chances in the first period and Scott Gomez in close after the centre picked up a loose puck and broke in on the goalie.
"You want to earn the start, so every game you have to be sharp when you're the backup," said Thibault, 5-2 since Feb. 18. "If you're not, you might not play for a while."
Madden got his break after Penguins defenceman Sergei Gonchar fell down at the blue-line in the New Jersey zone.
"I missed the net, hit the glass," said Madden, who slightly injured his groin in the third period. "He didn't get a save. I didn't get a shot on net."
Ruutu gave the Penguins the lead with less than three minutes left in the period with a shot from deep in the corner. The shot was probably a pass to Mark Recchi, but it ended up in the net after deflecting off the stick of New Jersey centre Travis Zajac.
"I tried to go backdoor and it hit his shaft and went in," Ruutu said. "I was lucky."
Crosby earned his NHL-leading 104th point on the play with the primary assist.
The Penguins' other goal was well earned. They cycled the puck in the New Jersey end for about 30 seconds before Christensen took a pass from Ruutu in left circle and ripped a shot into the top of the net.
"We can't go too far ahead," Ruutu said. "We have to keep going game by game and get everything ready for the playoffs."
Staal put the game away with 2:36 left, scoring his 28th goal in close after a Devils' turnover.
Crosby's assist came on a tough night. The centre was whacked on the left hand on his first shift, cut on the corner of his mouth after being hit in the face by a pass midway through the second period, and knocked down by Devils defenceman Colin White as the period was ending.
Notes: Devils D Colin White returned after missing two games with a hand injury. ... Devils RW Brian Gionta missed his 11th game in 13 with a groin injury. ... This was the second game in 17 for Pittsburgh not decided by one goal. ... Devils captain Patrik Elias also sustained a slight groin pull in the third period and played only two shifts. ... New Jersey has lost a season-high four straight at home.