NEW YORK -- Brad Richards didn't want to say what is quickly becoming obvious -- that right now, the New York Rangers belong in the conversation about the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers completed their own personal hat trick Tuesday night by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 at Madison Square Garden, scoring all of their goals in the second period. It was the Rangers' third win in as many games against Eastern Conference teams that have grown accustomed to being talked about as elite.
New York also won at Washington on Friday and at home against Philadelphia on Saturday. Tuesday's win was the Rangers' seventh straight at the Garden and 10th overall in the last 12 games. It moved them into second place in the Atlantic Division behind the Penguins, who have three more points but have played four more games.
"We believe in here that we're capable of winning any night. That's up to you guys if you want to put us in that (elite) category," Richards said after picking up three more points to give him 19 in his first 21 games as a Ranger. "There are categories every year, predictions, but there are not too many players in the League that really listen to that. We all just go out and play."
The Rangers are arguably playing better than they ever have under coach John Tortorella.
Richards led the way against Pittsburgh with a goal and assists on each of the Rangers power-play goals, but Tortorella said Marian Gaborik (one goal and an assist) deserved the nod as the best player on the ice for either team, including Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh's captain had two more assists on a night when his team was without defensemen Kris Letang (broken nose) and Zbynek Michalek (undisclosed injury). Both are heading back to Pittsburgh on Wednesday for further evaluation.
"He was skating, making passes, confident in the things he was doing," Tortorella said of Gaborik. "Richie was really good at times, struggled at other times, but made big plays at key times. That's what he's supposed to be doing."
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan chipped in with a power-play goal and an assist and Henrik Lundqvist earned his 10th win of the season by stopping 24 of 27 shots.
But once again, it wasn't just the well-known Rangers that chipped in.
John Mitchell scored his first goal as a Ranger 14:09 into the second period, ripping a shot over goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's catching glove and into the top right corner to give Rangers a 2-1 lead. Carl Hagelin set-up Mitchell with a pretty drop pass for his second assist of the season and his third straight game with a point.
Hagelin made his debut against Washington last Friday. He has played only three NHL games.
"We're just trying to use all of our assets," Mitchell said of his line, which includes Hagelin and center Brian Boyle. "Brian is big and strong and a big body to move in front of the net. Carl and I just try to use our speed and read off each other, and get in on the forecheck.
"Hockey is a game where there's ups and downs, and right now it's certainly an up."
The Rangers trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes on James Neal's power-play goal with 2:04 left before intermission. Pittsburgh also controlled possession of the puck for most of the first portion of the second period, but Pascal Dupuis was called for holding Boyle and the Rangers had their first power play of the game at 6:10.
Callahan cashed in by completing a 200-foot rush that started with Richards' defensive zone faceoff win from Matt Cooke. Dan Girardi led the rush to Richards, who fed Callahan. He found Gaborik on a backward diagonal pass and the Slovakian winger gave the puck back to Callahan for a one-timer from the right post.
Ninety seconds after Mitchell made it 2-1, Richards used Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik as a screen and put a similar looking shot over Fleury's glove and into the top right corner. Gaborik added a power-play goal less than three minutes later, completing the Rangers four-goal surge in a matter of 10 minutes and 25 seconds.
"I didn't feel like they had a lot of zone time or anything like that. I think they just got a few chances off the rush and power-play goals," Crosby said. "I don't think it felt like they carried the play in the second period, but we made some mistakes and gave them momentum."
Less than a minute before Gaborik's goal that put the Rangers up 4-1, Cooke thought he scored when the puck off his high stick hit both Lundqvist and defenseman Michael Sauer before going into the net. The goal was immediately waved off and the officials confirmed their call after a brief discussion with the NHL Situation Room in Toronto.
Rule 80.3 says "when an attacking player causes the puck to enter the opponent's goal by contacting the puck above the height of the crossbar, either directly or deflected off any player or official, the goal shall not be allowed." Cooke made contact with the puck when his stick was above the crossbar, so the call on the ice of no goal stood.
"I knew it was a high stick," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
Evgeni Malkin gave Pittsburgh life by scoring off a rebound with 6.1 seconds left before the second intermission. Dupuis then made it 4-3 just 3:39 into the third period, but the Penguins committed four minor penalties in the final 7:19 of the game, leaving themselves shorthanded and having to fend off a pair of 5-on-3s.
The Rangers didn't have to score on any of those power-play chances. Their four goals in the second period were quite enough.
"It's good to know that we can beat the top teams," Lundqvist said.