PITTSBURGH (AP) – Evgeni Malkin scored a goal in his fourth consecutive game to start his career, fellow Pittsburgh rookie Jordan 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.

Their 5-3 record may not seem all 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 improved record created most of the offense in a game the 18-year-old Staal, 19-year-old Sidney Crosby and 20-year-old Malkin teamed to take 13 of Pittsburgh’s 25 shots.

Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, making his eighth consecutive start, turned aside 20 of 22 shots.

The Devils, who got goals from Scott Gomez and Sergei Brylin, lost their third in a row and have scored only 13 goals in six games.

With Malkin moved up to Crosby’s line, Nils Ekman played on the Penguins’ No. 2 line with Staal and Mark Recchi for the first time and scored Pittsburgh’s first goal and assisted on Staal’s fourth career goal . Crosby and Malkin each had a goal and an assist after being united on the No. 1 line by coach Michel Therrien on Monday.

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 in the Devils’ zone, he split two defenders and did a spin move near the net to cleanly beat goaltender Martin Brodeur on a backhander to restore Pittsburgh’s two-goal lead.

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.

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.

Brylin closed it to 3-2 in the third, but Malkin answered about two minutes later just past the midpoint of the period.

Malkin also made an exceptional pass to create Crosby’s third goal of the season less than two minutes into the second period, a one-timer set up when Malkin skated hard down the left wing boards – an unaccustomed spot for a player who normally is a center – and put a pass directly onto Crosby’s stick.

Notes: 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 first year of his three-year contract kicks in after nine games. … 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.

AP-ES-10-24-06 2154EDT


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