NEW YORK -- The Rangers needed a win to stop the freefall, and quite frankly they had no excuse not to get one Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
The Pittsburgh Penguins came in beaten and battered with five AHL call-ups littering a lineup that did not include the injured Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Arron Asham, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey. Suspended players Matt Cooke and Eric Godard were also watching from the upper press box.
Pittsburgh jumped on the Rangers early, but couldn't sustain the pressure. New York scored five straight goals, including three on the power play, en route to a 5-3 victory, their first since Jan. 24. The Rangers snapped a 0-5-1 slide and moved within four points of the idle Montreal Canadiens for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Ryan Callahan, who had 2 goals and an assist, told NHL.com it felt like the biggest win of the season.
"It definitely does (considering) it's this late in the season and the bind we put ourselves in losing those six in a row," Callahan said. "It's a satisfying win, but at the same time we've got to come back with another one. We can't take a step back now. We have to build up the wins."
Instead it's the Penguins who now have to stop the bleeding. They've lost four of their last five games and surrendered 14 goals during their weekend trip to New York that included a well-publicized donnybrook on Long Island and a bus accident Saturday on their way to an outdoor practice in Central Park.
The Penguins are preaching the company line that they should be able to win regardless of who is in the lineup and what's happening around their team -- on Sunday it was the statement released by co-owner and legend Mario Lemieux -- but the losses of Crosby and Malkin plus the other injuries and suspensions may finally be catching up to them.
Pittsburgh used emotion and hard work to win eight of nine prior to losing in Washington last Sunday. Eventually it had to come down.
"Everybody knows that we're missing key guys, but it's not an excuse to come out and make mistakes," All-Star defenseman Kris Letang told NHL.com. "Even if you play in the American Hockey League, you have to play hard and follow the system. We have to manage the puck better."
Puck management and penalties contributed to their problems Sunday, but the Rangers deserve credit for taking advantage. They scored because they got shots through and had players driving the nets.
Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan scored on deflections from in front of the net less than four minutes apart in the first period to erase Pittsburgh's early 2-0 lead. Rangers coach John Tortorella called a timeout after Nick Johnson gave the Penguins the two-goal advantage 5:06 into the game, but his message was uplifting and the Rangers obviously listened.
"It was getting a little hinky in the building," Tortorella said. "I said we had to stay together and just chip away, not get too excited."
Vinny Prospal gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead by slamming home a shot from the right post off a crossing feed from Dubinsky 1:34 into the second period. Callahan scored his second power-play goal of the game at 11:04 with a wrister from the left circle, but Dubinsky was in front to screen Penguins' goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (26 saves). Artem Anisimov made it 5-2 with 4:37 to play in the second when he scored a power-play goal from the high slot.
The five goals were the most the Rangers have scored since Jan. 19, when they beat Toronto, 7-0. They scored a combined six goals over their previous four games.
"We were in the middle of a thing where we couldn't score more than two goals a game and it was being said in here (the dressing room) that we need to go hard to the net, get deflections and get rebounds," Prospal said. "At that crucial time in the first period we got two dirty goals. That's what makes the difference. All of a sudden the power play starts clicking."
As important as the power play was, Tortorella said the penalty kill mattered more. The Rangers killed off a pair of four-minute double minors -- one in the first period when it was 2-2 and another in the third when they were ahead 5-3. They were 5-for-6 on the PK for the game.
"It was a big character win to come back like that," Callahan said. "Hopefully we can use this confidence going forward."
The Penguins are going to have to find their confidence. They knew coming into the game that had basically no margin for error, especially against a team hungry for a win like the Rangers were, but they committed five penalties totaling 12 minutes and were outscored on special teams by a 3-1 margin.
Pittsburgh is first in the League on the penalty kill, but it leads the NHL with 1,113 penalty minutes. It's becoming too taxing on guys like Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis and Letang to kill penalties and be relied on for consistent offense in the wake of all the injuries and suspensions.
"Right now it's not easy for our team to consistently kill penalties," said Staal, who led all forwards in ice time at 23:46, including 5:14 on the PK. "With the lack of players we have in the lineup we can't keep taking penalties all the time."
And with the lack of space between the Rangers and ninth place in the Eastern Conference they had to find a way to get a win.
If they didn't on Sunday against a depleted opponent in front of 18,200 at the Garden, well you can imagine how many people would be sticking the fork in them.
"It's definitely good to stop the bleeding now," Callahan said. "We can start looking at the games ahead of us and not the teams behind us."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl