NEW YORK --
The Rangers bided their time for several years, building their team through shrewd drafting and allowing those young players to develop their skills while the team as a whole went through growing pains.
To become an elite team, however, elite players are needed. Enter Marian Gaborik
and Brad Richards
, a pair of expensive free-agent signings designed to transform the Rangers from a team that's just good enough to make the playoffs to one that's good enough to compete with the best.
On Tuesday night, Gaborik and Richards were worth every penny.
They came through against the League-leading Pittsburgh Penguins
, combining for 2 goals and 3 assists in the Rangers' 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden. Gaborik's winner in the second period came on assist from Richards, who scored 2:47 earlier to give the Rangers a two-goal lead.
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The duo combines to earn 14.2 million this season, which accounts for 22 percent of the Rangers' salary-cap space. In 21 games, they haven't disappointed. Richards has 9 goals and 10 assists while Gaborik has 11 goals and 8 assists, tying them for the team lead with 19 points.
Against the NHL's top team both in the standings and in the eyes of many, the pair delivered in a big way.
"I thought Gabby was the best player (on both teams)," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "He was skating, he was making passes, he was confident in the things he was doing. He made some big plays.
"Richie was really good at times, struggled at other times, but he made some big plays at key times, and that's what they're supposed to be doing. It certainly helped us win a hockey game."
With the Rangers trailing 1-0 midway through the second period, Richards and Gaborik delivered the tying goal on the power play, which converted twice while they were on the ice.
Richards drove back the Penguins defense and dished the puck to Ryan Callahan
on the right wing. Callahan fed Gaborik as Richards cut toward the net. Gaborik skated around Chris Kunitz
and threaded a pass through the legs of Matt Niskanen
for a Callahan tap-in to tie it.
After John Mitchell
put the Rangers ahead 2-1 at 14:09 of the second period, Richards made it 3-1 just 90 seconds later when he ripped a quick, precise wrist shot over the catching glove of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
. It was the type of moment in the type of game Richards wanted to embrace when he signed a nine-year, $60 million contract this summer.
"They're all big. Playing Philly at home, Pittsburgh here … I talked about it all summer," said Richards. "It's fun to be in a hockey environment. No disrespect to the other places I played. I had a lot of fun. But this is a little different."
Gaborik's power-play goal with 1:34 left in the second period capped a three-point night for Richards and gave the Rangers much-needed insurance. The Penguins cut the 4-1 lead to 4-3 with goals from Evgeni Malkin
with 6.1 seconds left in the second period and Pascal Dupuis
early in the third period.
It was a clutch performance against a top team for Gaborik, who did a lot of his damage last season against teams in the bottom-third of the standings.
"Everyone prepares as best as we can for these games," Gaborik said. "They're always big for us. It's great that we came up big, myself and everyone in this room."
Not only was Gaborik contributing offensively, he wasn't ignoring his defensive responsibilities. That has been a point of contention with Tortorella at times since Gaborik signed his five-year, $37.5 million contract in July 2009. Gaborik was a complete player Tuesday, using his legs at both ends of the ice and drawing a penalty late in the third period with the Penguins pressing for the tying goal.
"He's pushing people back with his speed, and he's been skating all year long," Tortorella said. "Not only that way offensively, but skating this way (defensively) also when we don't have the puck. I thought he was a force just as far as his aggression with the puck skating and testing people and backing them off."
The Rangers' big-money players came through in a big-money game. If that trend continues, they could be cashing in during the playoffs.
"It's important to have your top guys play strong, especially in big games," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
said. "Gabby and Richie looked really good out there."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo