All eyes were focused on Sidney Crosby when he returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup from a three-month injury-related absence Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, but in the end it was grinding forward Matt Cooke and All Star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury who keyed the Penguins 5-2 victory over the Rangers.
The Penguins, who have won ten straight games, are now just four points behind the Rangers for first place in the Eastern Conference and hold a game in hand. The two teams will also meet one more time this season, April 5th in Pittsburgh.
Cooke scored twice---giving the Pens a 1-0 lead just 2:54 into the game, and a 3-1 advantage 2:31 into the second period---to pace the Penguin attack against the Rangers and goaltender Martin Biron, who started his second straight game for the flu-weakened Henrik Lundqvist. Evgeni Malkin (his 39th), Chris Kunitz (21st), and Pascal Dupuis (19th) also scored for Pittsburgh, who were buoyed by the return of both Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang from injury. Crosby and Letange each earned an assist in the game.
Fleury---who made a phenomenal glove save on Marian Gaborik's wide-open 20-footer in the second period---finished with 29 saves for the Penguins. The only two goals scored against him came from the Rangers red-hot top line consisting of Gaborik-Brad Richards-and Carl Hagelin.
Hagelin tied the game at 1-1 13:36 into the first period by converting his 14th goal from five-feet out, and Gaborik netted his team-high 35th goal at 14:32 of the middle stanza to bring the Rangers within 3-2. The line totaled six points---Richards had two assists while Hagelin and Gaborik were each 1-1-2---after scoring four times and totaling nine points in Tuesday's 4-2 win over Carolina. Richards extended his point-scoring streak to five consecutive games, while Gaborik upped his to four straight.
Other than its top line New York--playing once again without Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto--generated few quality chances against Fleury, though John Mitchell and Mats Zuccarello were stopped on the doorstep late in the third period.
Artem Anisimov suffered an undisclosed injury late in the second period and did not return for the Blueshirts.
The Rangers, now 2-1-0 on their season-high seven-game homestand, will host the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night in their next contest.