NEW YORK -- Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the return of Sidney Crosby is the fact there's a pretty big hockey game taking place at Madison Square Garden, too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will be at full strength -- defenseman Kris Letang is back, too -- as they look for their 10th straight victory when they face the New York Rangers in a battle of the Eastern Conference's top two teams.
The Rangers hold a six-point edge on their Atlantic Division rivals, who hold a game in hand. While the Penguins have been surging, the Rangers have been scuffling -- they have won two straight to start a seven-game homestand, but are just 4-3-1 in March and haven't been playing their best of late.
While the Penguins are getting healthy, the Rangers are going in the opposite direction. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will miss his second straight game due to the flu; Ryan Callahan is out for a third straight game with a foot ailment, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto will miss his fourth consecutive game with a sore hip.
There are enough storylines in this matchup to keep writers at their keyboards for days, but for both teams, the game is all that matters.
"This game is a lot more than about Sidney Crosby coming back to our game and a comeback game for Sid," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We know that if we want to catch the Rangers and first in our division and hopefully first in the conference, we have to beat them. We're coming in here to win the two points. I don't think we can give them one point and realistically think we have a chance to get them. That's what this game is for us."
Rangers coach John Tortorella doesn't care who is in the lineup for the Penguins.
"We're worried about our club," Tortorella said. "That's all we're concerned about -- the New York Rangers."
Tortorella's players aren't looking at it as just another game, but they aren't concerning themselves with any of the hype surrounding Crosby.
"Doesn't matter," Rangers forward Brian Boyle. "They're a good team that's coming on strong. He's a good player, obviously, but it's a big divisional game. That's the biggest thing. Games get magnified toward the end of the season. That's the biggest thing."
Goaltender Martin Biron will make his second straight start -- the Rangers called up Chad Johnson from Connecticut of the AHL to serve as the backup -- and said it won't be hard to focus on the task at hand.
"We had our morning skate, and we'll leave here this morning game-ready," Biron said. "It's the same as it's always been. When we play Pittsburgh, it's always a very important matchup. It's very exciting, very emotional. With Sidney in the lineup, it adds a different dimension, but I think they've got a lot of weapons on the other side that keeps us on top of our game. It's always a special game when we play them."
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