With or without Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL.
After winning nine in a row without their captain, the Penguins celebrated his return on Thursday night by extending their winning streak to 10 with a dominating 5-2 victory against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Coach Dan Bylsma lived up to his promise not to overwork Crosby, who hadn't played since Dec. 5 due to concussion symptoms -- he played just 16:00, but that was enough time to earn an assist and go plus-3. Equally valuable was the return of top defenseman Kris Letang, who had an assist and was plus-5 in 24:22 of ice time.
The Penguins moved within four points of the Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, with a game in hand, as they head into weekend games at New Jersey and Philadelphia. The Rangers get a day off to regroup before hosting Colorado on Saturday night.
With five games on Friday's schedule, here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after the eight played on Thursday:
New York Rangers (95 points after Thursday's 5-2 loss against Pittsburgh) spent the night playing catch-up against the Penguins, who dominated for most of the game. Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik scored goals, and Martin Biron stopped 27 shots -- he played for the second straight game in place of Henrik Lundqvist, who has the flu.
Boston (83 points after Thursday's 6-2 loss at Florida) was pummeled by the usually light-scoring Panthers, who handed the Bruins their fourth straight loss. Tim Thomas stopped just 23 of 29 shots as the Bruins lost at the BankAtlantic Center for the first time in six games over three seasons.
Florida (81 points after Thursday's 6-2 win against Boston) delighted a sellout crowd by scoring five or more goals against an opponent other than Toronto for the first time since Dec. 5. Six players scored as the Panthers moved three points ahead of Washington in the Southeast Division race -- and grabbed a six-point bulge on ninth-place Buffalo as they try to end a playoff drought that dates to 2000.
The next five:
Pittsburgh (91 points after Thursday's 5-2 win at New York) had Crosby, Letang and Evgeni Malkin on the ice together for just the fifth time this season. More important, they had Marc-Andre Fleury in goal -- Fleury made 29 saves to earn his 38th victory of the season and hasn't lost since Feb. 15. Matt Cooke was the big gun with two goals.
Philadelphia (89 points after Thursday's 3-2 win at the New York Islanders) looked like it would help Ilya Bryzgalov to a fourth straight shutout before the Islanders scored twice in 35 seconds and had several chances to tie the game. Bryzgalov passed John Vanbiesbrouck to set the all-time team record for longest shutout streak at 249:13 before Michael Grabner's goal at 13:30 of the third period.
New Jersey (87 points after Thursday's 1-0 shootout win against Colorado) got a flawless performance by Martin Brodeur to win a battle between the NHL's two best shootout teams. After 65 scoreless minutes, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise scored for the Devils, while Brodeur denied both Colorado shooters. It was his second shutout of the season and the 118th of his career.
Ottawa (82 points) was off Thursday. Montreal comes to Scotiabank Place on Friday night for the second half of a home-and-home series. A win will move the Senators past Boston into first place in the Northeast Division.
Washington (78 points) got a scare at practice Thursday when Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble collided at full speed during a drill. Ovechkin lay face-down on the ice for a few minutes and looked dazed when he went to the dressing room. Coach Dale Hunter says his captain will be ready for the Caps' game at Winnipeg on Friday.
On the outside looking in:
Buffalo (75 points) is off until a visit to Florida on Saturday.
Winnipeg (74 points) plays its biggest game of the season when Washington comes to the MTS Centre on Friday. A regulation loss would be a severe blow to the Jets' playoff hopes.
St. Louis (98 points after Thursday's 2-0 loss at Carolina) was beaten by Hurricanes' goaltender Cam Ward, who stopped 40 shots for his 200th NHL win. Brian Elliott made 28 saves on 30 shots, but the Blues gave up a pair of goals after more than 52 minutes of scoreless hockey.
Vancouver (92 points) spent Thursday trying to fix the leaks that sprang up in Wednesday's 5-4 home loss to Phoenix. Coach Alain Vigneault hinted that backup Cory Schneider might start Saturday against Columbus after Roberto Luongo couldn't hold a 2-0 lead against the Coyotes.
Dallas (83 points) had a day to rest after splitting back-to-back games in Minnesota and Winnipeg. The Stars host Chicago on Friday night.
The next five:
Detroit (91 points) is mired in a 3-7-1 slump as it prepares to wrap up a road trip in San Jose on Saturday. The Wings will again be without star center Pavel Datsyuk and captain Nicklas Lidstrom.
Nashville (90 points after Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss at San Jose) had to settle for a single point after losing a goaltending battle to the Sharks. Patric Hornqvist's goal gave Nashville a 1-0 lead after two periods, but the Sharks tied in early in the third and got the only goal in the shootout. The Predators have a day off before two weekend games in Southern California.
Chicago (84 points) had a second off-day before visiting Dallas on Friday. The Hawks will again be without injured captain Jonathan Toews, who will miss his 12th straight game.
Phoenix (81 points after Thursday's 4-1 loss at Calgary) didn't have much zip one night after rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win 5-4 at Vancouver. A goal by Oliver Ekman-Larsson late in the second period cut Calgary's lead to 2-1 and looked like it would give Phoenix some life, but the Flames scored 33 seconds later and never looked back. The Coyotes can use their two days off before visiting Edmonton on Sunday.
Colorado (81 points after Thursday's 1-0 shootout loss at New Jersey) couldn't beat Martin Brodeur but did get a point thanks to a 33-save performance by Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Avs have a day off before visiting the Rangers on Saturday night.
On the outside looking in:
San Jose (80 points after Thursday's 2-1 shootout win against Nashville) continues to struggle to score, but Joe Thornton's power-play goal early in the third period got the Sharks past regulation before Ryane Clowe scored the lone goal in the shootout. The ninth-place Sharks have games in hand on the three teams immediately above them and get Friday off before hosting Detroit on Saturday.
Calgary (80 points after Thursday's 4-1 win against Phoenix) won its fifth in a row thanks to a balanced offense and 27 saves by Miikka Kiprusoff. Rookie Sven Baertschi gave the Flames the lead by scoring 17 seconds into the game, and Jarome Iginla, Matt Stajan and Alex Tanguay also scored. The Flames don't get any time to enjoy the win; they visit Edmonton on Friday.
Los Angeles (78 points) was off again on Thursday. The Kings visit Anaheim on Friday night, then host Nashville on Saturday.