Brian Rafalski netted two goals and assisted on another in New Jersey's 5-0 victory.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- With dozens of playoff games under his belt, two Stanley Cup rings and several NHL records in his possession, Mario Lemieux knows something about on-ice greatness.
Saturday, after New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur pitched his second consecutive shutout at Mellon Arena, Lemieux proclaimed the Devils to be "the best team by far" he's ever faced in the postseason.
"When we played Florida [in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals], they had a great defensive team, but not like this," said Lemieux after New Jersey's 5-0 romp.
A crowd of 17,148 looked on mostly in silence as the Devils grabbed a 3 games to 1 lead in the best-of-7 series by again stifling the Penguins' once potent offense.
New Jersey can end the series in Game 5 Tuesday at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. If necessary, Game 6 will be played at Mellon Arena Thursday.
"They have a great defense, a great system, but also some great offensive players," said Lemieux.
More specific: After stealing the puck, Lemieux said the Devils "get a good chance to score because their forwards are so talented and so good with the puck, and they have great transition, which is the key to a successful team.
"That's a helluva team we're playing, but once again we've just got to come ready to play and not give up," Lemieux said.
After scoring a goal and setting up another in Thursday's 3-0 victory, second-year defenseman Brian Rafalski was the star of Saturday's game when he netted two goals and assisted on another.
Rafalski, who played four years in Europe before signing with the Devils last year, said his goals may be surprising to others but not to him.
"I had success in Finland last year with a lot of goals and have always produced well in the playoffs," said the 27-year-old native of Dearborn, Mich. "I'm seeing the ice real well now, moving down and not really worrying about defense."
The Devils were in control from the start, pummeling Penguins rookie goalie Johan Hedberg with nine shots in the first six minutes.
The Penguins briefly slowed the assault when they were awarded three straight power-plays, but the frustrated home team, which was limited to 20 shots in Game 3, could muster just four shots at Brodeur skating with an extra man.
No goals, no juice: "We made some adjustments, but obviously it didn't work out," Lemieux said. "If you [score] one or two, then you get some juice and get everybody going."
The Penguins nearly survived the first period unscathed, but with 1 minute, 49 seconds to play, Patrik Elias deflected a Scott Neidermayer shot from the point past Hedberg.
The goalie said he felt the Devils' confidence surge.
"That first goal in these games has been huge," said Hedberg, who made 25 saves. "Once they get it, they seem to play so solidly."
Devils captain Scott Stevens agreed, saying, "We [played] pretty airtight once again. We're taking away their speed. I think it's more what we are doing than what they are doing."
Whatever hopes Pittsburgh had of salvaging a split at home and in the series evaporated quickly in the second period when the Devils scored twice.
From near the blue line, Rafalski blasted the puck past a screened Hedberg for a 2-0 lead almost eight minutes into the second period.
Penguins defenseman Hans Jonsson was tangled up with Devils center Jason Arnott just outside the goal crease.
"Arnie was there screening and he got a piece of it, but it's hard if you cannot see the puck," Rafalski said.
Not sure: Arnott said he's not sure if he touched the puck.
"I don't think I did -- I got shot out of the way so I don't really know if it touched me," Arnott said.
Rafalski assisted on Petr Sykora's goal, a wristshot from the faceoff circle.
Things fell apart for the Penguins in the third period when center Jan Hrdina knocked an Arnott pass past Hedberg into the Pittsburgh net.
Rafalski closed the scoring when another blast from the point eluded Hedberg.