NEWARK — Kyle Palmieri was giving up five inches and 10 pounds on Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin when the two collided early in a game Sunday in Newark. But Palmieri threw a check with enough force to flip Malkin over the boards and into the Devils’ bench.
The big crowd at Prudential Center roared with glee, almost as loudly as if Sidney Crosby, Malkin’s famous teammate, had been sent overboard. The roar did not last long: Some 38 seconds after the collision, Malkin slapped in a power-play goal from the face-off circle.
And there it was: the Penguins’ season in microcosm. They are on their second head coach this season, and they have been inconsistent and banged up, but they seem to rebound to win just often enough to earn another shot at a playoff run.
One day after they fell at home to the Calgary Flames, who had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, the Penguins (34-23-8) routed the crumbling Devils, 6-1, to inch past the Detroit Red Wings (32-22-11) into the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference standings. It is not insignificant: The top wild-card team would avoid the league-leading Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
“It was the response that we were looking for,” said Mike Sullivan, a former Rangers assistant who was named as the Penguins’ head coach Dec. 12. “We believe in our leadership group, and we knew they would play the right way. I thought we played hard. I thought it was a solid team effort. I think we got solid contributions through the lineup.”
On Tuesday, Pittsburgh is to play its first game in Brooklyn against the Islanders (36-20-7), who are in third place in the Metropolitan Division, 3 points ahead of the Penguins. It will be the second of nine straight games against Metro opponents.
Of the 18 skaters who played Sunday for Pittsburgh, only seven, including Crosby, had missed five or fewer games. Malkin missed 10 games last month with an undisclosed lower-body injury. But he is back, and the Penguins are moving along with a cobbled-together lineup.
Sullivan said Malkin and Crosby “lead in a lot of ways.”
“It starts with their effort and their conviction,” Sullivan added. “But obviously, they’re our top guys. They’re our best players, and when they score goals, it helps us win.”
In June, Sullivan, 48, an assistant to John Tortorella with the Rangers and in Vancouver, was named as the coach of the Penguins’ American Hockey League club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., replacing John Hynes, who had been named the Devils’ coach.
Sullivan won 18 of 23 games in the A.H.L. before he was promoted to coach the Penguins, who fired Mike Johnston after a lackluster 15-10-3 start. The Penguins proceeded to lose eight of their next 12 games, slipping to 10th in the conference.
But Crosby scored 11 goals as Pittsburgh won 10 of 16. He has 28 goals and 37 assists. Malkin has 27 goals and 29 assists. Along the way, the Penguins have received contributions from players promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — whom Hynes knows better than Sullivan.
“They were hard workers,” Hynes said. “They went through the process the right way. They went through the American League. They’re very good players. They had great work ethic, always had N.H.L. talent. They just needed to find ways to become consistent with that.”
The Penguins got two goals Sunday from the line of Nick Bonino, Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust. Kuhnhackl and Rust started the season in the minors.
“They’ve been here long enough that they’re a part of the Penguins now,” Bonino said. “It’s fun playing with those two. They have a lot of speed and a lot of energy.”
Before Sunday’s game, the Penguins recalled the towering forward Tom Sestito for his first N.H.L. game of the season. Less than eight minutes into the game, Devils forward Jordin Tootoo picked a fight with him. They received roughing penalties, but Tootoo also got an instigator penalty, and Malkin scored on the ensuing power play.
“Always good if you score,” Malkin said. “You have more confidence.”
On Jan. 16, the Penguins acquired Carl Hagelin, the speedy former Rangers forward who had been traded in the off-season to Anaheim. Hagelin was injured in Saturday’s loss to Calgary; he passed concussion protocol but was held out of Sunday’s game as a precaution.
“He’s got good hockey sense, so regardless of which line he plays on, he brings that element to his line,” Sullivan said. “He forces turnovers, puts defensemen under pressure. When he gets the puck on those turnovers, he has the hockey sense to make a play with it. He’s a good player for us. He helps us on the penalty kill. He helps us in a number of different capacities. We can utilize him up and down the lineup, and we have.”
Sullivan likes versatile players because he can use whatever they can provide. The Penguins also got a goal Sunday from the 39-year-old center Matt Cullen, who signed as a free agent with the Penguins in August. Cullen is playing for his eighth N.H.L. team.
“I had him all over the place on every line,” Sullivan said Sunday. “And he just takes it in stride and plays accordingly. That’s just a testament to the type of pro that he is. He’s been in the game a long time. He’s played a lot of roles. He can adjust on the fly.”
That would seem to describe the coach and the rest of the team, too.