Pens lackadaisical in loss to N.J.

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 10:09 p.m.

NEWARK, N.J. — There was little compelling about Thursday's game between the Penguins, who had nothing to play for, and the New Jersey Devils, who have been eliminated from the postseason.

In the hours before the Penguins fell to the Devils, 3-2, however, there remained plenty of intensity on veteran Steve Sullivan's face. Sullivan, now a Devil, was a Penguin last season when, as Stanley Cup favorites, they were stunned in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

When sizing up these Penguins, Sullivan shook his head emphatically. He was convinced there will be no first-round departure and that the Penguins will play deep into the spring, perhaps winning the Stanley Cup he so desperately craved last season.

“I'd be extremely surprised if something like that happens to them again,” Sullivan said. “Extremely. You know, you learn from your past experiences. They've learned their lesson. Look at how they've played all season. They are a team with a chip on its shoulder, and it shows. They aren't going to get stunned by anything again.”

The Penguins have become so accustomed to winning that an irrelevant setback in the standings actually left them seething.

“It's no excuse,” defenseman Mark Eaton said. “Going into tonight, we were two games away from the playoffs. We shouldn't be letting our guard down with the playoffs this close.”

The salty mood in the locker room is precisely what Sullivan said he believes will set the Penguins apart this spring.

Sullivan, incidentally, set up New Jersey star Ilya Kovalchuk's game-winner.

He foresees plenty of game-winners for the Penguins in the postseason. Whereas the Penguins might have become overconfident at times last season, Sullivan sees the loss to the Flyers last spring — and even lesser losses, like this one in New Jersey — as fuel for a playoff run.

“We should have done some damage last year and didn't,” Sullivan said. “It's too bad. But this team is built a little differently.”

The Penguins have lost twice in a row for the second time in April. Of course, those mini-losing streaks have followed 17- and seven-game winning streaks, respectively.

They saw positives against the Devils. The third line, comprised of Brandon Sutter, Brenden Morrow, and Matt Cooke, was a physical force in the offensive zone. Cooke scored his seventh goal of the season to give the Penguins an early 1-0 advantage.

“That's the type of line they will be for us,” Bylsma said. “Physical. A push-forward line, a line that's hard to play against. It's a line that can play in the offensive zone. They can be effective.”

The Penguins also saw encouraging signs from the league's reigning MVP, Evgeni Malkin.

For the second straight game, Malkin exhibited a skating burst that hasn't been evident most of the season. He didn't register a point but started to show chemistry with right wing Jarome Iginla and generated considerable opportunities.

“Maybe his timing wasn't there,” Bylsma said. “He certainly had that jump to his game.”

The Penguins didn't have their customary jump. Goals by Travis Zajac, David Clarkson and Kovalchuk gave New Jersey a comeback win.

But the Penguins know the playoffs will be their ultimate measuring stick.

“This was a tough game to play,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We weren't real intense. You've got to be careful. You can't just turn on the intensity all of a sudden, so I think we need to do a better job.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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