PITTSBURGH -- So much for easing Kris Letang back into the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup.
Letang, appearing in his first game in nearly two months, played a team-high 24 minutes, 17 seconds in arguably the Penguins' most impressive victory of the season, a 4-1 decision at the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers on Thursday night.
Before ending a four-game losing streak against the Rangers, the Penguins had been 0-5 against three of the conference's upper echelon teams, the Rangers, Flyers and Bruins.
Letang's return couldn't have gone much better -- he was a plus-2 and assisted on one of Evgeni Malkin's two goals in Pittsburgh's fourth consecutive victory. The Penguins have had an unconventional 14-game run, winning four straight, then losing six in a row before mounting their current four-game streak.
They'll try to match their season-longest winning streak of five, which occurred from Oct. 18-27, when they take on the Montreal Canadiens at Consol Energy Center on Friday night during a stretch of three games in four days.
Not only are the Penguins playing back-to-back games against conference opponents, they'll have a quick turnaround before taking on the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon.
Not surprisingly, coach Dan Bylsma called off the scheduled morning skate Friday to give his players a chance to sleep in following the late-night flight home from New York.
Letang, though, probably wouldn't have minded going back on the ice given how effective he was in his comeback game. The defenseman had only two morning skates and one off-day practice before playing for the first time since a hard hit from the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty on Nov. 26 in Montreal sidelined him.
As Letang cut across the middle, Pacioretty's hard hit broke Letang's nose and caused a concussion that didn't show up for a couple of days. Despite being hurt, Letang returned after being cleared by a doctor and scored the game-winning goal in overtime as Pittsburgh won 4-3, its second victory in as many games against Montreal this season.
"You can ask our trainer, Chris Stewart, I'm somebody who's kind of rough with injuries. I don't really pay attention," Letang said. "The first thing I noticed was my nose was not in place, so we took care of that. After that, it was just a question of being able to function. I was pretty pumped to get back out there. I was excited. The adrenaline was still pumping in my veins. I didn't feel anything that night."
Pacioretty drew a three-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head.
Malkin, now the NHL's leading scorer with 54 points, hopes to build on a streak in which he has scored goals in four consecutive games and six of seven. He has 6 goals in his last three, including a hat trick Sunday at Tampa Bay and the 2 goals against the Rangers.
"It's not about my 2 points," Malkin said. "It's the two points for the team that were important."
Malkin has 10 goals and 15 assists in 20 career games against Montreal, which is 4-10-1 in its last 15 games. The Canadiens have dropped six of their last seven on the road.
Brent Johnson has played in only one of the Penguins' last 15 games, but is expected to be in goal. He has won only once since Oct. 18, beating Carolina 3-2 on Dec. 3. Each of his last two starts came against the Hurricanes. Marc-Andre Fleury has played in 19 consecutive games since that Dec. 3 game, including two in which he took over for Johnson.
The Penguins' likely lineup:
Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Pascal Dupuis - Dustin Jeffrey - Tyler Kennedy
Steve Sullivan - Richard Park - Matt Cooke
Eric Tangradi - Joe Vitale - Craig Adams
Brooks Orpik - Kris Letang
Paul Martin - Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen - Deryk Engelland