PITTSBURGH (AP) — Robert Bortuzzo’s main responsibility is to protect Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The towering Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman is unapologetic in his aggressive approach, figuring if he does his job, then his team’s stars can do theirs.
One board-rattling second-period collision with New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr on Tuesday night sent a jolt that could resonate for months. Bortuzzo’s run-in with Jagr woke up his teammates and Malkin provided the game’s only goal 2:32 into the third period as the Penguins edged the reeling Devils 1-0.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots for his NHL-leading fifth shutout, but it was Bortuzzo’s meeting with the future Hall of Famer that will be remembered when the teams meet again in New Jersey on Dec. 29.
Jagr chased a puck to the right corner behind the Pittsburgh net and sent it around the boards. The puck was gone by the time the 6-foot-4 Bortuzzo barreled into him and sent Jagr onto the ice face-first.
“Totally unnecessary,” New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said. “You know, if one of our guys had done that to Crosby there’d be World War Four.”
Jagr laid on the ice for several minutes before woozily making his way to the dressing room. He received a surprisingly warm ovation from the Pittsburgh crowd, which has lustily booed Jagr from the moment the two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins left in 2001.
Penguins coach Mike Johnston felt the hit was clean and Bortuzzo was repentant.
“I thought the puck was there,” Bortuzzo said. “I kept my shoulder down, felt like I hit him in the chest. It’s unfortunate he went out of the game, but like I said, just playing hard.”
Jagr was alongside a handful of banged up teammates in the dressing room when Malkin ended a brilliant end-to-end rush by taking a feed from Jayson Megna and beat Cory Schneider with a backhand. Steady play from Fleury made it stand up as the Penguins won for the fourth time in five games.
“We told our guys it might be one of those games where we might just have to will it out in the third period,” Johnston said. “We hung in there with it. We stuck with it. We guarded against frustration for the most part and I thought we did a good job in a really tough game.”
Schneider made 22 saves but received little help. New Jersey generated few quality chances against Fleury, who has won six straight at home against the Devils.
Gomez played 22 minutes in his return to the Devils after being signed on Monday but couldn’t stop New Jersey from being shut out for the second time in eight days.
“Whether it’s 20 minutes or five minutes, it’s good to be out there,” Gomez said. “It just happened tonight. Everyone kind of had a double shift. We still came up short and we have to find a way to put it in.”
Pittsburgh’s patched-together lineup lacked injured defenseman Kris Letang and banged-up forwards Chris Kunitz and Marcel Goc. In their place were fill-ins such as Andrew Ebbett and Scott Wilson, who was called up from Wilkes-Barre Scranton on Tuesday morning when Crosby missed the pregame skate with an illness. While the reigning MVP played in his 574th game — the eighth most in team history — Crosby was surrounded by a sea of largely unfamiliar faces.
Then again, the Penguins received little sympathy from New Jersey. The Devils brought back the well-traveled Gomez hoping he could give the struggling lineup a needed energy boost.
The 34-year-old last played for New Jersey in 2007, when the Devils lost to Ottawa in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He began the night as the young guy on a first line that included the 42-year-old Jagr and 38-year-old Patrik Elias, only to have Jagr and Elias head to the trainer’s room.
“I’m not going to forget what number (Bortuzzo) is,” New Jersey forward Jordin Tootoo said. “It’s a long season, so at the same time, we have to worry about our guys in the locker room here and get back on the winning ways.”
NOTES: Jagr had three shots before leaving and now has 5,160 for his career, passing Al MacInnis for third on the NHL’s all-time list. Marcel Dionne is second with 5,366. … Pittsburgh went 0 for 3 on the power play and is now 3 of its last 23 with the man advantage. … Kunitz is out at least “a couple weeks” with a fractured foot. … The Penguins host Vancouver on Thursday night. New Jersey plays at Toronto on Thursday.
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