NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils bounced back from their worst performance of the season with the help a 21-year-old second-year player.
The young Devils also put a major dent in the Pittsburgh Penguins' bid for a 17th straight Stanley Cup playoff berth.
Dawson Mercer scored his first career hat trick, Vitek Vanecek made 22 saves and the Devils beat the fading Penguins 5-1 Tuesday night, knocking Pittsburgh out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with four games left in the regular season.
New Jersey's dominating performance came just two days after it was smoked 6-1 by Winnipeg.
“Coming off that last game, we wanted to make sure we came out fast and were ready to go because we obviously didn’t want to see a repeat of that,” Mercer said after pushing his goal total to a career-best 27. “I think we really handled it well and came out strong. Once we got that early lead, we just kept going.”
Dougie Hamilton and Timo Meier also scored for the Devils, who remain three points behind Carolina in the race for the first-place in the Metropolitan Division. Carolina, which has played one fewer game than New Jersey, beat Ottawa in overtime.
In all likelihood, the Devils will have home-ice advantage in a first-round playoff series with the rival New York Rangers.
“We’d love to be here, so you take it one game at a time,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “Hopefully we can secure that spot. I mean, the destiny is in our hands, which is something that I feel is important.”
Coupled with Florida's win over Buffalo, the Panthers moved into a tie with the New York Islanders for the two wild cards in the East, one point ahead of Pittsburgh. All three teams have four games left, but they don't play each other.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said his team made too many mistakes against a good team in falling to 4-7 in its last 11 games.
“We didn’t play well enough. We got outplayed,” Sullivan said. “All we can do is is figure out what we can take from it and try to apply it to the next game. And that’s what we’ll try to do. But we’re going to have to we’re going to have to stay in the fight here. We’re still in it.”
Bryan Rust ruined Vanecek's bid for a fourth shutout this season when he scored his 20th of the season at 6:14 of the third period. Tristan Jarry had 32 saves for the Penguins, whose run of 16 straight postseason appearances is the longest active streak among the major North American sports leagues.
Despite being outshot and having to kill off two Penguins power plays, the Devils took a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Hamilton and Mercer.
Meier scored on a 5-on-3 power play in the second period off a nice feed from Jack Hughes and Mercer scored with 34 seconds left in the period on a backhander after Jarry failed to handle a point shot for a 4-0 lead.
Mercer finished off the hat trick early in the third after Jarry made a save on a 4-on-1 rush. Nico Hischier got the rebound and found Mercer alone in front for a shot into a empty net that led to hats flying on the ice and the 21-year-old flashing a huge smile.
“You look at the three of them, all one touches, all within a foot of the net,” said Mercer, who has made a home for himself around the crease this season. “So like I said before, it’s working for me and I’ll keep on going there and until you know it stops.”
Hischier also set up Mercer's first goal on a 2-on-1 rush.
NOTES: The Devils swept the four-game season series. The only time New Jersey was undefeated in three or more games against Pittsburgh in a season was in 2009-10, when they were 6-0. ... Pittsburgh D Brian Dumoulin left the ice in the in the first period after taking a big hit from Michael McLeod behind the Penguins net. He returned.
Penguins: Host Minnesota on Thursday night.
Devils: Host Blue Jackets on Thursday night.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
Copyright 2023 STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.