After the NHL's general managers' meetings on Wednesday, Rangers president Glen Sather had this assessment of the Penguins: "They're obviously the best team in the league. With [Sidney Crosby] back, it's certainly going to make it a lot more difficult. They've got their full lineup. We're missing some people. We'll give them a fight."
Even without Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers did battle hard at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. But the depth and skill of the Penguins, who also saw defenseman Kris Letang return to the lineup, was too much.
With a 5-2 victory that was secured in the third period, Pittsburgh won its 10th straight and closed the gap on the Atlantic Division- and Eastern Conference-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 one more time, 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' goals were by Richards' linemates, Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik.
"I'm really excited at what Richie's line is doing," coach John Tortorella said, "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."
Each team is a playoff lock, but the reward for finishing first in the conference is a first-round series against the No. 8 seed in the East, possibly Florida, Washington or Buffalo. The second-place finisher in the Atlantic Division can do no better than a No. 4 seed and will draw a tougher matchup against the No. 5 seed, which could be the Flyers or Devils.
Crosby, playing his first game since Dec. 5, was quiet for the first two periods, but he fed Chris Kunitz for the Penguins' fourth goal at 3:01 of the third period.
"We mixed him in regularly," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It was a pretty good start."
The Rangers have 95 points and the Penguins have 91, mostly because they've proved, with an array of secondary scoring, that they can dominate without Crosby. One of those players, Pascal Dupuis, made it 5-2 at 7:35 of the final period.
Matt Cooke, who had two goals, opened the scoring at 2:54 of the first period when his wrister deflected off the blade of John Mitchell's stick, popped high over Martin Biron and landed in the net. With Lundqvist out with the flu, Biron started his second consecutive game.
The Penguins silenced the crowd with two goals 1:12 apart early in the second to make it 3-1. Evgeni Malkin scored his 39th and then Cooke scored again.
Gaborik's snap shot from the slot trimmed the lead to 3-2 at 14:32 of the second, but Marc-Andre Fleury (5-0 in March with only seven goals allowed) stopped all 13 shots in the third.
"We had some struggles on the back end," Tortorella said. "It doesn't take too many chances for them to score goals."
Or make up valuable ground.