Dawson Mercer scores 1st hat trick as the Devils sweep Penguins

New Jersey Devils center Dawson Mercer (91) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Dawson Mercer scored his first career hat trick and the New Jersey Devils beat the fading Penguins 5-1 Tuesday night, putting Pittsburgh’s bid for a 17th straight Stanley Cup playoff berth in serious jeopardy.

Dougie Hamilton and Timo Meier also scored for the Devils and Vitek Vanecek made 22 saves as New Jersey rebounded from its worst loss of the season, a 6-1 setback in Winnipeg on Sunday night.

Coupled with Florida’s win over Buffalo, the Panthers moved a point ahead of the Penguins in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have four games left, but they don’t play each other.

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.

Pittsburgh is 4-7 in its last 11 games, losing three straight on the road.

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, who now has 27 goals in his second NHL season.

Meier scored on a 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.

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.

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