The Penguins knew that if they wanted to give themselves a shot at winning the Atlantic Division (and Eastern Conference), Thursday’s game against the first-place Rangers was a must-win.
And win they did.
Pittsburgh earned its 10th straight victory by topping the conference-leading Rangers, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden – trimming New York’s lead in the standings down to four points.
The Penguins’ 10-game win streak ties for the longest stretch in the NHL this season, set by Boston from Nov. 1-23. And with each victory, the Penguins are starting to loosen the Rangers’ grip on the first-place slot they’ve held for the last 79 days.
“It was a big win,” said captain Sidney Crosby
, who made his return to the lineup after missing 40 games with concussion-like symptoms and a neck injury. “They only get bigger from here. It was good to get it, but from here on in we’re going to have some really tough games against tough teams. But that being said, we wanted to have a good one here tonight and we did that.”Matt Cooke
had two goals while Evgeni Malkin
, Chris Kunitz
and Pascal Dupuis
also scored for Pittsburgh. Thursday marked the first time this season that the Rangers have surrendered five goals in regulation.Marc-Andre Fleury
made 29 saves for his 38th win of the season, a number that ranks second in the NHL behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. Fleury has now won eight straight decisions dating back to Feb. 18 and has gone 19-2-1 in his last 22 starts dating back to Jan. 13.
As Crosby said, the Penguins know their quest for first doesn’t end here – they’ve got a multitude of tough games remaining on their schedule, starting with New Jersey (Saturday) and Philadelphia (Sunday).
But with the team that’s virtually back at full health, the Penguins are ready to keep making a statement as they continue down the stretch towards playoffs.
’s second comeback this season didn’t have the same dramatic flare as his two-goal, four-point performance Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders, but it was just as significant.
Crosby chipped in two assists (an assist was added later after an official review) and logged a solid 16 minutes as the Penguins came away with a big late-season victory, 5-2, against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.
“I felt like (16 minutes) was a pretty good amount,” he said. “That’s something that will be a progression and we’ll see how it goes.”The full details on Crosby’s return here
LETANG ALSO RETURNS
Crosby wasn’t the only big name to make his return on Thursday evening.
Defenseman Kris Letang
rejoined the lineup after missing the previous five games with symptoms from a hit he took on Feb. 29 vs. Dallas, and immediately proved why he’s such a vital part of this Penguins squad.
Most players coming back from injuries need to ease back into the flow of game action to get their timing back. Not Letang.
Not only did the 24-year-old defenseman skate a team-high 24:22 minutes (nearly three minutes higher than the next-highest total), but Letang even set a new season high in the game with his plus-5 rating.
“Plus-5, that’s a pretty remarkable score – it’s a 77 if you’re counting a golf score,” joked Bylsma.
Letang also earned an assist on Dupuis’ goal, the fifth and final Penguins' tally of the evening, and skated on a pairing with Paul Martin
, who also returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games due to illness.
“He’s strong in so many areas of the game, both offensively and defensively with the puck and his skating ability,” Bylsma said. “Putting him back in there with Paul Martin
immediately adds another element to how we can defend and how we move the puck as well. I thought Kris looked strong.”
Thursday’s contest certainly wasn’t lacking in dramatics with Crosby’s return and the significance of it standings-wise, but it would be Matt Cooke
who ended up stealing the show on Broadway.
Cooke scored twice to lead the Penguins past the Rangers, his third two-goal game of the season.
Both of Cooke’s goals came as a result of driving hard to the net and getting in the dirty areas.
His first came as a result of a fortuitous bounce just 2:54 into the opening period, when linemate Tyler Kennedy
won a battle in the corner and slid a pass to Cooke just outside the slot.
He lofted a shot at the cage that sailed high into the air, hit the crossbar, deflected down and careened off defenseman Stu Bickel's glove into the open net.
Cooke’s second goal, which came just 2:31 into the second, proved to be the game-winner.
Bylsma had elected to reunite the Cooke-Staal-Kennedy line for that shift, and Staal got play started when he gained the zone and pushed the puck ahead as he was checked into the boards for Kennedy to scoop up.
Kennedy sent a pass across the slot for Cooke to punch home alley-oop style.
Cooke now has 14 goals on the season, one shy of his career high. Overall, he has 14 points (9G-7A) in his last 21 games.
ODDS AND ENDS
With his assist on Matt Cooke
's second goal, Jordan Staal
has now equaled Evgeni Malkin
's team-high nine-game point streak (it also is a nine-game assist streak). It's the longest stretch of Staal's career, who has scored three goals and nine assists during his streak. The 23-year-old center now has points in 13 of 15 games since returning from a knee injury on Feb. 11.
Malkin's goal moved him one point ahead of Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos in the NHL scoring race. Malkin has 85 points (39G-46A) while Stamkos has 84 (50G-34A).
Tonight marked just the 11th time since the beginning of the 2010-11 season that the Penguins had their top-three centers -- Crosby, Malkin and Staal -- together in the same lineup. All three players collected one point tonight (Malkin: 1G; Crosby: 1A; Staal: 1A) and the Penguins are nearly unbeatable -- 62-3-6 -- when that happens.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo