PITTSBURGH (AP)—A seemingly insignificant game in late October might be the night the Pittsburgh Penguins first gave the NHL a glimpse of its new generation of stars, one that already has the look of being very special, very soon.
No, the Penguins aren’t Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr or Ron Francis. They’re Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal. All are No. 1 or No. 2 draft picks, and they aren’t taking long to show why.
Malkin scored a goal in his fourth consecutive game to start his career, fellow rookie Staal scored his third goal in two games and the Penguins beat the New Jersey Devils 4-2 on Tuesday night.
The Penguins, the Atlantic Division’s last-place team the last four seasons, find themselves in an unfamiliar spot since the days following Mario Lemieux’s comeback nearly six years ago: first place. They have won three in a row for the first time since March 19-23, 2004, a span that includes the 2004-05 labor shutdown season.
“We’ll take that,” Crosby said.
No kidding. Their 5-3 record may not seem that great, but it’s a big improvement from the Penguins’ nine-game losing streak to start last season. The players most responsible for their success—18-year-old Staal, 19-year-old Sidney Crosby and 20-year-old Malkin—teamed for 13 of Pittsburgh’s 25 shots.
Fleury turned aside 20 shots, making three good saves during a four-minute Devils power play to end the second period and start the third. The former No. 1 pick has a 2.50 goals-against average while starting all eight games.
“It’s a much better atmosphere than what we had before,” Fleury said of a team that won only 22 games last season. “Everything is more relaxed. We have a lot more confidence that we are going to win games, and that’s what you’re seeing. It was a big win.”
“It’s not Devils hockey,” goalie Martin Brodeur said.
Or maybe it was the new Penguins hockey, with Malkin moved up to Crosby’s line for the first time. Crosby and Malkin each had a goal and an assist, as did Nils Ekman, shifted to the second line with Staal and Mark Recchi.
Malkin’s goal came midway through the third and was exactly the kind of highlight-reel goal he scored so often for Russia in international play and with the Russian Super League last season. Taking a cross-ice pass from Crosby, he split two defenders and did a spin move near the net to beat Brodeur on a backhander to restore Pittsburgh’s two-goal lead.
“I came right from the bench and I had a lot of energy,” Malkin said, speaking through an interpreter. “A lot of guys on their team were wanting to change. He made a nice pass, saw me there and it was just me and the defender.”
Brodeur’s take on the goal?
“Pretty amazing,” he said. “It was a great pass, but there’s not too many guys who can control that and after that, have the presence to outmuscle a guy and shift when a guy is trying to take your head off. I thought I had it the whole way, he had nowhere to go, and he just stopped and went right around me with his reach.”
Malkin, who missed the Penguins’ first four games with a dislocated left shoulder, is the first NHL player to score in each of his first four games since Steven King of the Rangers in 1992. He also made an excellent pass in traffic early in the second to set up Crosby’s third goal of the season.
“Guys like him will make you pay for mistakes,” Devils coach Claude Julien said. “He’s a highly skilled player.”
Staal, one game after becoming the youngest player in NHL history to score short-handed twice in the same game, had made it 3-1 with just under five minutes left in the second period during a three-man rush with Ekman and Recchi.
“I don’t like to give up goals and I like to score goals,” Staal said, who already is one of the Penguins’ most-used players on the penalty kill. “I take pride in playing defense and offense.”
Despite the exceptional start to his career—he was the No. 2 pick in the June draft—Staal still hasn’t been told if he will stay with the Penguins past Saturday, though that now seems to be a given. He can return to his junior team after nine games without his NHL contract kicking in.
The Penguins recalled C Maxime Talbot earlier in the day. Penguins rookie D Kristopher Letang, who had two goals in seven games but was a minus-3, was scratched for the first time—a sign he could he headed back to his major junior team. … The Devils were without rookie C Travis Zajac (hip) for the second game in a row. … New Jersey has been outscored 19-7 in the second period.