The Pittsburgh star intercepted a pass, pirouetted around a pair of New Jersey defencemen, broke in all alone on Martin Brodeur and flipped a wrist shot into the back of the net to thwart a Devils' rally early in the third period in the Penguins' 5-2 victory Sunday night.
"It's not unlike Sidney Crosby to do that," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
Crosby's last goal at Consol Energy Center came in his electric season debut on Nov. 21. He played just eight games before heading to injured reserve when concussion-like symptoms resurfaced and missed more than three months.
Though he'd been steady since his return on March 15 — picking up nine assists in his first five games — he didn't score his third goal of the year until Saturday, the lone bright spot in an 8-4 loss to Ottawa.
The Penguins knew they needed to rebound quickly to keep pace with the New York Rangers in the battle for the Eastern Conference crown. When Ilya Kovalchuk's goal 3:37 into the third period cut Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2, Crosby went to work.
Flashing the speed and creativity that made him arguably the best player in the world before sustaining a debilitating concussion in January 2011, Crosby's fourth goal of the year deflated the Devils.
"That hurts a little bit when you do make it 3-2, you get some life and they get one back," New Jersey's Zach Parise said. "That was frustrating."
Evgeni Malkin chipped in an empty-net goal and an added assist for the Penguins to push his points total to 97, tops in the NHL. Pittsburgh has won 10 straight at Consol Energy Center and moved back within a point of the Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with seven games remaining.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game," Crosby said. "We did some good things. I still think we got better, which is a good thing. To bounce back that way after giving up eight goals and not playing the way we wanted to was important."
Brodeur made 23 saves, but couldn't stop the slumping Devils from falling to 1-3-1 in their last five games.
"You want to get into the playoffs as soon as possible and you want to get in feeling good about yourself and not just dogging it in," Brodeur said. "We're doing a lot of good things. We've had a rough patch but we've played some really good hockey teams lately."
Marc-Andre Fleury made it stand up to pick up his NHL-leading 41st victory to move within one win of tying Tom Barrasso's franchise mark of 226.
The Penguins needed Fleury to be sharp after arguably their worst game in three months. Pittsburgh saw its chase of the Rangers hit a speed bump on Saturday, when Ottawa torched backup goaltender Brad Thiessen.
The loss, coupled with New York's comeback win over Toronto put the Penguins three points back of the Rangers and just two ahead of Philadelphia in the jumbled Atlantic Division.
The Devils threatened to make it a four-team race division and conference title but have stumbled over the last week and are now trying to hold onto the sixth spot in the conference, which would present a favourable first-round matchup with the Southeast Division winner, likely Florida.
Yet New Jersey looks vulnerable at the moment and even its star goalie isn't immune.
The Penguins took the lead just 64 seconds in thanks to some sloppy stickhandling by Brodeur. He gathered the puck behind the net and was attempting a pass when Malkin swooped in and stole the puck then whipped a pass to Chris Kunitz, who fired it into a wide-open net.
"I didn't really see (Malkin) coming and when I looked down at the puck it really wasn't where I thought it was," Brodeur said. "I got handcuffed there."
Pittsburgh quickly repaid the gift, with Crosby turning it over deep in his own end with Fleury badly out of position. Parise jumped on the mistake to knot things at 1. It remained tied until late in the period when Jordan Staal used his reach to collect a pass from Matt Cooke and sneak a wrist shot by Brodeur to make it 2-1.
Pascal Dupuis pushed it to 3-1 in the second after he pounced on a rebound, extending his points streak to a career-best 10 games, the longest active streak in the league.
Kovalchuk's goal only made it interesting for a moment. Crosby's score pushed it two before Malkin added an empty-netter late to give him 46 on the season, one off his career-high.
NOTES: The teams split their six games against each other this season, finishing with a 3-3 record. ... Pittsburgh scratched forward Steve Sullivan, who left the Ottawa game with an injury coach Dan Bylsma called "short-term." ... The Penguins begin a home-and-home set on Tuesday night when they host the New York Islanders. The Devils start a two-game homestand Tuesday against Chicago.