New Jersey was expected to contend for the Metropolitan Division title this season. Maybe even a Stanley Cup.
And perhaps the Devils will, on both counts.
But the team that showed up at PPG Paints Arena Thursday night hadn’t looked much like a contender lately.
The Devils, you see, were barely above .500 (7-6-1), had lost four of their previous five games and were missing three of their best players — forwards Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Timo Meier — because of injuries.
And while the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t fared well against New Jersey very often in recent years, they had won five in a row and seemed to have escaped the early-season struggles that translated to a 3-6 start.
But unfortunately for the Penguins, some streaks are more durable than others.
The Devils beat them, 5-2, for their sixth consecutive victory against the Penguins, and their fifth in a row at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins haven’t defeated New Jersey here since April 24, 2021 and won’t get another try until next season, since this was New Jersey’s only regular-season visit in 2023-24.
The Penguins had a pair of odd-man breaks in the early minutes of play, but were unable to capitalize on either and Tristan Jarry had to stop a close-range backhander by Devils center Michael McLeod just over five minutes into the game to prevent New Jersey from grabbing a lead.
Less than two minutes later, Bryan Rust pushed the Penguins’ streak of getting the first goal to seven games by pulling in a long lead pass from Jake Guentzel and getting behind Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton before driving to the net and flipping a backhander past New Jersey goalie Vitek Vanecek at 6:36 for his eighth of the season.
Guentzel’s assist gave him a six-game points streak. Marcus Pettersson got the second assist.
Although the Devils entered the game with the NHL’s most efficient power play, it was their penalty-killers who did some early damage to the Penguins.
New Jersey defenseman Kevin Bahl was sent off for hooking at 11:53, but the Penguins were sloppy and out of synch for most of the two minutes that followed, and New Jersey tied the game on a shorthanded goal by Curtis Lazar at 13:34.
Erik Haula stole the puck in the neutral zone, setting up a 2-on-1 with Lazar, who put a shot between Jarry’s legs from below the right dot. It was the third goal the Penguins have allowed while on a power play this season.
Rust restored the Penguins’ lead — for a few seconds, anyway — at 3:17 of the second, as he set up near the lip of the crease and steered an Erik Karlsson backhander from inside the left circle into the net.
Karlsson’s assist raised his points streak to seven games while Sidney Crosby got the second assist, pushing his scoring streak to 10 games.
The Penguins, however, managed to stay on top for just 38 seconds, as Jarry failed to control the rebound of a shot by Hamilton and Nathan Bastian put in the rebound at 3:55.
The Devils finally got a chance with the extra man 38 seconds into the third period, when Crosby was called for tripping, but that man-advantage only lasted 41 seconds before Haula tripped Kris Letang.
New Jersey wasn’t fazed, however, and Jesper Bratt beat Jarry on the short side from low in the left circle at 2:35 to put the Devils up, 3-2.
Alexander Holtz made it 4-2 when he was left alone at the left side of the crease at 11:24 and Tyler Toffoli rubbed it in by throwing a shot past Jarry from above the right hash 20 seconds later.
After the game, the Pittsburgh Penguins called off the practice scheduled for Friday at noon at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.