Off to a relatively slow start this season, it appeared Sidney Crosby was taking a backseat to teammate Evgeni Malkin as the Pittsburgh Penguins' offensive leader.
Crosby's recent play suggests that's certainly not the case.
With six goals in his last three games - and coming off his second career hat trick - Crosby and the Penguins will try to put an end to their recent struggles at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday when they meet the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers.
Malkin leads the NHL with 39 points and he's produced at least one in all but two of Pittsburgh's 23 games. Crosby, who led the league with 120 points in 2006-07 and was second in points per game (1.36) last season, had 16 through 14 games to start 2008-09, but he'd only scored three goals.
Over his last nine games, however, Crosby has caught fire. He has 10 goals and eight assists as the Penguins (14-6-3) have gone 6-2-1, and he's coming off one of the best games of his career. Crosby had his second NHL hat trick - his first at home - and added an assist in Pittsburgh's 4-1 win over New Jersey on Saturday.
"The last week Sid really picked up his game," coach Michel Therrien said. "You could see the fire in his eyes and that he was having fun."
Crosby has pulled within five points of Malkin for the league's scoring lead, and the 22-year-old Russian center has continued his stellar play during Crosby's hot streak. Malkin has six goals and 11 assists in his last nine games, and had his third career hat trick last week in a 5-3 win over the New York Islanders.
"We try to make some plays the other teams don't expect," Crosby said of his part-time linemate. "It's hard to focus on one of us when both of us are out there, so, hopefully, we create some space for each other."
This is the third season Malkin and Crosby have played together, but the two stars have yet to find much success on the road against the Rangers (17-8-2). The Penguins have lost six straight at MSG and are 2-7-3 in their last 12 games there, including a 3-2 shootout loss on Oct. 25.
Malkin has just three assists in eight career games in New York, and Crosby has a goal and an assist in his last six trips.
It should be no surprise if Pittsburgh and New York end up in another shootout. The Penguins have played in five, going 3-2, while the Rangers have seen seven games end that way, going an impressive 6-1.
New York won a pair of shootouts during a two-game trip to Florida last week, topping the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 on Wednesday and the Florida Panthers 4-3 on Friday. The Rangers, though, couldn't muster any offense Sunday when they completed a home-and-home series against the Panthers and were shut out for the first time this season, 4-0.
Henrik Lundqvist, who leads the Eastern Conference with 15 wins, was pulled after Florida's third goal. He's allowed at least three goals in three of his last five starts after not giving up more than two in his previous 12 games.
"Obviously I want to play," Lundqvist said. "A couple of quick plays and it was 3-0. I felt they outworked us in the second period and it paid off."
Lundqvist has tormented Pittsburgh over the past two seasons, going 9-4-2 with a 1.89 goals-against average.
Dany Sabourin, who leads the league with a 1.84 GAA while filling in for the injured Marc-Andre Fleury, lost 4-0 on Dec. 18, 2007 at MSG in his only appearance against the Rangers.
C - NYR
G: 2 | A: 1
LW - NYR
G: 1 | A: 0
LW - NYR
G: 1 | A: 0