(AP) – The Pittsburgh Penguins’ inability to close out games is costing them valuable points as they try to secure one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference.
The New Jersey Devils are picking up so many wins that they could be playing themselves back into playoff contention.
The slumping Penguins will try to cool off Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils, who look to pick up at least one point for an 11th straight home game Friday night.
Pittsburgh (37-21-7) has lost five of six, with three of those defeats coming after regulation. The Penguins, one of four teams in the East with more than 80 points, blew a third-period lead Wednesday and fell 3-2 in overtime at Toronto.
“We have to come together and figure out ways to win exactly these types of games,” coach Dan Bylsma said.
The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 11-9-4 since losing Sidney Crosby to a concussion Jan. 5. The Penguins, who led the conference before his injury, have scored two or fewer goals in their last five losses.
Despite the slump and not knowing when Crosby will return, Pittsburgh has some reason to be optimistic about getting things turned around.
Chris Kunitz, who has 18 goals and 18 assists in 52 games, could return from a lower-body injury that has kept him out since Feb. 6. Right wing Tyler Kennedy and defenseman Paul Martin returned from injuries Wednesday.
While the Penguins are trying to get back on track, the Devils (28-31-4) are looking to keep up their hot streak. Although they are still on the outside of the playoff race, they have significantly closed the gap by going 18-2-2 since Jan. 9, including 9-0-1 at home.
“We just have to take care of our business and good things will happen,” Kovalchuk told the Devils’ official website. “We’ll take one game at a time, practice hard, prepare the best we can and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Kovalchuk assisted on the tying goal in the second period and scored the winner in the third of a 2-1 home win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
It was his fifth game-winning goal in 11 contests, a stretch during which he has seven goals and six assists. Kovalchuk has clearly keyed New Jersey’s turnaround, with 24 points in the last 22 games after totaling just 21 through his first 40.
“He’s got a knack for scoring and making plays,” coach Jacques Lemaire about his $100 million forward. “He’s got a touch. That’s why he is making so much money.”
Despite his success recently, Kovalchuk has been held off the scoresheet in three games against Pittsburgh (37-21-7) this season, including a 2-0 home win Jan. 20. The Penguins won the first two meetings.
New Jersey’s recent surge has impressed Bylsma, although he’s not surprised by it.
“A tale of two seasons for them,” Bylsma said Thursday. “They are playing extremely well right now. … It’s not a new way for the Devils. It’s typical Devils style hockey.”
Updated March 3, 2011
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