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Zajac has 2 goals and assist as Devils beat Penguins 3-1

NEWARK, N.J. — Just when it looked like the New Jersey Devils were coming back to the pack in the Eastern Conference after a surprising start, they have surprised everyone again. This time it was the NHL's hottest team.
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NEWARK, N.J. — Just when it looked like the New Jersey Devils were coming back to the pack in the Eastern Conference after a surprising start, they have surprised everyone again.

This time it was the NHL's hottest team.

Travis Zajac scored two goals and set up another as the Devils limited Pittsburgh to a season-low 16 shots in posting a 3-1 victory on Saturday night, ending the Penguins' four-game winning streak.

The win was the Devils third straight after the All-Star break and it came against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, who had only lost twice in 11 games.

"These are big because you want to create as much separation as you can especially as the year goes on," Zajac said after the Devils leapfrogged the Penguins and moved back into second place in the Metropolitan Division with three games in hand. "It's nice to get these wins, keep improving and we're going to have to win a lot more games. As long as we're prepared and focused, we'll get there."

Blake Coleman also scored and Stefan Noesen had two assists for the Devils, who have missed the playoffs the past five seasons.

"You have goals you set out to achieve, every night won't win, but I think our consistency through 60 minutes has been good," centre Brian Boyle said. "Sometimes you have to simplify and go to basics. We got a great group of character guys in this room."

Keith Kinkaid made 15 saves and benefited from a goaltender interference call that denied Sidney Crosby a third-period goal.

Evgeni Malkin, the NHL player of the month in January with 12 goals, scored in the third period. He now has eight goals in his last four games, 15 since Jan. 1, and 29 overall. Rookie goaltender Casey DeSmith made 35 saves for the Penguins, who looked sluggish after beating Washington on Friday night.

"When you don't play committed, you don't play hard, you get outplayed, you are not going to win," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We got outplayed. It's pretty simple. They wanted it more. They won every loose puck battle. They were quicker with their second man to the puck battles. For whatever reason, we didn't have any jump tonight. We didn't seem to have our legs. We certainly got outplayed. We deserved to lose."

Crosby, who also missed an open net in the second period, had his 11-game point scoring streak stopped. The run is tied for the NHL best this season.

"Tonight was an example if you not doing those little things and you are not competing that it doesn't matter, you don't give yourself a great chance of winning" Crosby said.

After a scoreless first period, Zajac gave the Devils the lead 30 seconds into the second period after a mistake by DeSmith. The rookie goaltender tried to pass or poke the puck toward the corner and Zajac intercepted it close to the net and stuffed it into the net for his first goal in 10 games.

Penguins defenceman Olli Maatta fanned on clearing attempt near the right circle a little more than two minutes later and Zajac collected the puck. He sent a pass to Noesen, who quickly found Coleman for a shot that got between DeSmith's arm and body at 3:05.

Malkin got the Penguins on the board early in the third period with a great backhander past Kinkaid that was set up by defenceman Ian Cole.

Zajac got his seventh goal at 9:51, deflecting a point shot by defenceman Damon Severson past DeSmith.

Crosby lost his goal when it was ruled that Bryan Rust skated through the crease and hit Kinkaid in the mask. The blow knocked the goaltender down and allowed Crosby to bank a shot from the corner into the net off the goalie.

NOTES: Penguins F Zachary Ashton-Reese made his NHL debut. ... The win ended the Devils' five-game losing streak against the Penguins, all last season. .... This was Pittsburgh's first loss in regulation against a Metropolitan Division opponent since Jan. 1 (5-1-1).

UP NEXT

Penguins: Host Vegas on Tuesday night.

Devils: at Ottawa on Tuesday night.

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More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Tom Canavan, The Associated Press