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Rangers, Penguins see improved health equal wins

by Corey Masisak
The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins have been saddled with a myriad of injuries this season, but both teams have welcomed back healthy bodies and are among the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference because of it.

These two Atlantic Division rivals will look to continue their positive momentum when they clash in a Sunday matinee at CONSOL Energy Center in NBC Sports' NHL Game of the Week (12:30 EDT).

The Rangers have won five of six games to open some space between them and the teams chasing Buffalo for the eighth spot in the conference. Several key forwards have missed time for New York, but everyone who the Rangers expect to have back this season is healthy.

Marian Gaborik was out for six games with a concussion after losing 12 for a separated shoulder earlier in the year. Callahan missed 19 games with a broken hand. Brandon Dubinsky was sidelined for five with a leg injury.

That trio makes up New York's top three scorers, but they are all back playing well. Also back in the lineup are Vinny Prospal, who missed the first 53 games after knee surgery, and Ruslan Fedotenko, who dealt with a shoulder injury and an emergency appendectomy. 

The Rangers were able to stay afloat because of the strong goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and contributions from young forwards like Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Now they have a full compliment of offensive weapons and have scored 27 goals in the past 6 contests.

"We had a bit of a hiccup there in Anaheim. Other than that, we have been playing our identity hockey," Rangers forward Ryan Callahan told reporters. "[The] key for us is our game, keep setting the tone, keep the pressure on them, working hard, working as a team."

While the health of the forward corps has improved tremendously, Lundqvist's availability against the Penguins is in question. He finished New York's 6-3 victory Friday night against Montreal but did not skate Saturday because of a stiff neck.

Montreal forward Benoit Pouliot caused a three-man collision with Lundqvist and Rangers defenseman Steve Eminger late in the third period of the contest.

"I haven't really seen the play or know what happened. I was always clear, and we checked the X-rays and that was good," Lundqvist told reporters after the game. "My goal is be ready [Sunday]."

New York has maintained its place in the top eight of the Eastern Conference, but the Rangers had allowed Buffalo and Carolina to close the gap with three consecutive losses before this run of good form. A win against the Penguins would have the Rangers six points clear of the ninth-place Hurricanes.

"We're playing the way the Penguins play. We're doing all the right things in the system. We're trusting each other to be there and back each other up and we're playing hard." -- Jordan Staal

"You can't rest for a second," Callahan said. "Our emphasis in here is to look ahead. [Montreal] was an important game. We can't have a let up here. We have to keep going."

Meanwhile, the Penguins are not going to have the services of Evgeni Malkin again this season, but Sidney Crosby's return looks more promising. Defenseman Brooks Orpik is also close to coming back from a broken finger.

Crosby and Orpik would bring the Penguins as close to full strength as they could expect to be with the postseason approaching. In the meantime Pittsburgh has welcomed back forwards Chris Kunitz and Mark Letestu and defenseman Paul Martin and positive results have followed.

The Penguins did not win a game in regulation from Feb. 4 -- the day after Malkin was lost for the season with a knee injury -- and Mar. 7, but they have done so in three of their past four contests. Balance without the big guns has been a key for the Penguins -- they have 10 goals from seven different players in the past two games.

Surprisingly, one of the three guys who has two in that span is defenseman Zbynek Michalek -- he has three goals in four games after collecting zero in his first 58 appearances for the Penguins.

"We're playing the way the Penguins play," center Jordan Staal, who also has a goal in each of the past two games, said. "We’re doing all the right things in the system. We're trusting each other to be there and back each other up and we’re playing hard."

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