Wednesday the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins, who were missing nine regulars from their lineup, brought an inspirational plaque to the visitors' dressing room at Madison Square Garden that summarized their mission: "Dig In, Shoot Straight, Fight Like Hell, Hoorah!"
The motto came from Sgt. Major J.B. Spizzo, who ran the Penguins through some military-style drills at West Point during training camp, as he has for other NHL teams.
In this stretch, when injuries and suspensions have mounted, the Penguins have kept pace with AHL youngsters replacing veterans, including Evgeni Malkin and their top four defensemen, and have taken the saying to heart, winning four straight games, and were aiming for No. 5 against the Rangers.
On Nov. 6, the last time Sidney Crosby and Co. were in town, five different Rangers scored, Henrik Lundqvist made 28 saves and the Blueshirts won, 5-1. "We got spanked here," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
That victory was the first of a three-game winning streak for the Rangers, who then stumbled badly, posting a 7-9-1 record and slipping into 11th place in the East. The Penguins lost their next two games, but righted themselves, and have gone 13-3-1, rising to the top of the conference at 24-10-1.
"The guys who have come in have done a great job," Crosby, who has 19 goals and 47 points in 35 games. "As a group we need to come together and continue what we've been doing."
But Crosby is the unquestioned captain and leader. "He has the ability to compete on every single play," Michael Del Zotto said. "You have to be at your best, your strongest, all the time. It's turned into a heated rivalry with these guys."
Lundqvist, who has struggled, started his seventh consecutive game, facing Marc-Andre Fleury (19-8-1, 1.98 GAA). "The Rangers are always tough," said Matt Niskanen, one of the healthy Penguins defenseman said. "They have some players with great speed and Lundqvist always battles, so we've got to get a few past him."
To a man, the Rangers (16-17-1) viewed the matchup as a chance to build on their 4-3 overtime win against Calgary on Sunday, which relieved some of the stress of the four-game losing streak that opened a season-high, nine-game homestand, during which the Blueshirts had hoped to establish some type of identity.
"It would be nice to finish the last stretch on a good note, I think we played well the last game, but it's not going to be easy," Derick Brassard said. "They're missing a lot of key players, but they still have the best player in the world. Crosby can change a game at any time and that team has a good work ethic. We expect a big push from them."
Coach Alain Vigneault, who noted that the Rangers have given up fewer than 12 top scoring chances in each of the last five games, wants his defense, which is missing Marc Staal, to continue its run.
"We've done a better job coming back, protecting the house, being a little stronger in one-on-one situations," Vigneault. "Yes, they are missing a couple key elements on the back end but any time a team's got a player like Crosby . . . they're still a top-performing team. It's a good challenge for us, a good test, and I know our guys are ready."