So with the hockey world watching last night, the Penguins beat the Rangers 5-2 at the Garden. Yes, the Rangers were missing their starting goalie, their captain, and a top-four defenseman (and also saw Artem Anisimov leave the game with an injury). And we’re aware Pittsburgh can’t stay quite this hot forever. (They just can’t, right?) But that was quite a statement by Pittsburgh last night. The Rangers are still atop the standings, but it’s hard to argue with Glen Sather: Right now, the Penguins — winners of ten straight games — are the best team out there.
This was a one-goal game at the start of the third period, before Pittsburgh gave themselves a nice cushion with goals by Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. And indeed, the Rangers have had some issues in the third period in recent weeks. But there were more specific issues last night: The Rangers were sloppy in their attempts to clear the defensive zone, which not only lets a talented Pittsburgh team regain possession, but helps limit the amount of time the Rangers go on the attack. And while the Rangers did have some scoring chances beyond their two goals, Marc-Andre Fleury was very good last night.
The Rangers’ top line of Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, and Carl Hagelin continued to impress: They scored twice, and all three of the linemates collected two points. But especially with Ryan Callahan out, the Rangers are having trouble getting goals from their other lines. Compare that with Pittsburgh, a team that doesn't necessarily need to rely on its top line for offense, even though that top line includes the league’s leading scorer.
You may have noticed we haven't mentioned Sidney Crosby yet, and that’s because last night didn’t turn into The Sidney Crosby Show, unlike the game in November when he returned to action against the Islanders and some goalie named Anders Nilsson. Crosby was fine last night, notching an assist and a plus-3 rating in sixteen minutes of ice time, and it’s worth noting the Rangers didn’t really touch him in his first game back. But we’ll say this much: While the Rangers themselves had plenty of other Pittsburgh weapons to concern themselves with, the Garden fans focused on Crosby from the start: He heard boos when he took the ice, and again when he touched the puck, and all night long we heard shouts of “Hit him!” and “Take the pension!” (Obviously, a handful of voices don’t speak for the fan base at large, but we definitely got the sense that there were people at that game who wanted to see Crosby concussed and knocked back out of the lineup last night. We understand that Crosby’s presence increases Pittsburgh’s chances of winning the East — and that he’s never been especially popular ’round these parts — but that’s still a scary mindset.)
Anyway, as decisive as last night’s game was, the Rangers still have a four-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Atlantic, though Pittsburgh has a game in hand. (By the way, the four-highest point totals in the Eastern Conference belong to teams in the Atlantic Division.) The Rangers' current seven-game homestand continues with a game against Colorado on Saturday night. (The Avalanche lost 1-0 to the Devils last night.) Colorado isn’t nearly as scary a team as Pittsburgh — they're fighting for a playoff spot in the West — but the Rangers still need to tighten up their game, and finding some scoring beyond that top line will go a long way. (If ever there was a time for Brandon Dubinsky to step up, this would be it.) And to repeat once again, the Rangers need to get healthy.
It’s a testament to how well the Rangers played on the whole this season that Pittsburgh has run off ten straight wins and still trails them by four points. If they’re going to come out on top in the East, however, they'll need to play more like the team that built up that lead in the standings, and not like the one that’s stood still of late while the Penguins have surged.