On Wednesday, Rangers president Glen Sather offered this assessment of the Penguins. "They're obviously the best team in the league,” he said. "With [Sidney Crosby] back, it's certainly going to make it a lot more difficult. They've got their full lineup. We'll give them a fight."
Without Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto, the Blueshirts battled hard at Madison Square Garden last night, but the depth and skill of the Penguins, who also had All-Star defenseman Kris Letang return to the lineup, was too much.
With a 5-2 victory, Pittsburgh won its tenth straight game and closed the gap on the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers to four points with a game in hand. The Penguins have outscored the Rangers 11-3 in the last three wins. The teams meet once more, on April 5 in Pittsburgh.
“We get them one more time,” said center Brad Richards, whose line was by far the most effective against the Penguins. “We’re still in first place and we’re still a good team. We have guys coming back soon and we are going to keep plugging away.”
The Rangers, with 95 points, also lead the East, and the Penguins have 91, mostly because they’ve proved, with an array of secondary scoring, they can dominate without Crosby. Ten Penguins had points. The Rangers goals were by Richards’ linemates, Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik.
“I’m really excited at what Richie’s line is doing,” said coach John Tortorella, “but we have to come back in there with something that can handle defensive stuff and another line that can score a goal or two.”
Crosby, playing his first game since Dec. 5, fed Chris Kunitz for the Penguins’ fourth goal at 3:01 of the third period, played 16 minutes and even was used on the wing. “We mixed him in regularly,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “It was a pretty good start.”
Matt Cooke, who scored twice, opened the scoring at 2:54 when his wrister deflected off John Mitchell’s stick and popped high over Martin Biron, who made 27 saves in starting his second consecutive game with Lundqvist out with the flu. Gaborik later fought off Brooks Orpik along the boards and in front of the net and Richards grappled with center Joe Vitale, who poked at the puck and it went to Hagelin, who roofed it for the tie at 13:36.
The Penguins silenced the crowd with two goals 1:12 apart early in the second. Ryan McDonagh was stripped in the defensive zone and Biron stopped Evgeni Malkin’s backhander but the puck slid behind him for Malkin’s tap-in. Along the right boards, Tyler Kennedy found Cooke with a pass just beyond Gaborik’s reach in front for an easy deflection at 2:31.
Gaborik’s snap shot from the slot trimmed the lead to 3-2 at 13:32, and Marc-Andre Fleury (5-0 in March, allowing just seven goals) didn’t allow anything else.
“We had some struggles on the back end,” said Tortorella. “It doesn’t take too many chances for them to score goals.” Or make up valuable ground.
Crosby’s much-ballyhooed return after sitting out with concussion symptoms since Dec. 5 wasn’t filled with fireworks---which was fine with him. Playing just his ninth game in 14 months, Crosby recorded an assist on the Penguins’ fourth goal ---Chris Kunitz’ 21st of the season---at 3:01 of the third period just after a power play ended, for his only point in Pittsburgh's 5-2 win.
Crosby, who was slightly less aggressive than usual, was on the third line and skated with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. He played 16 minutes---including 4:24 on the power play, where he played the point---won 11 of 21 faceoffs, had one shot on goal and was a plus-3.