NEW YORK - Sidney Crosby was on the ice for three of Pittsburgh's five goals, and defenseman Kris Letang was out there for all of them.
The Penguins are suddenly the picture of health, and the NHL's hottest team is making the Eastern Conference playoff race a fight to the finish.
Crosby returned from a 40-game absence caused by concussion symptoms, and Letang rejoined the lineup after missing the past five because of the same ailment. That gave the Penguins their most complete lineup in months, and Pittsburgh responded with a thorough 5-2 victory over the East-leading New York Rangers on Thursday night.
The Penguins have won 10 straight, including two wins over the Rangers in that spurt, and now trail New York by four points. Pittsburgh has 13 games left, compared to 12 for the Rangers.
Crosby was hoping he wouldn't mess up any chemistry created by his teammates while he was out.
"I didn't want to be that guy," the 24-year-old center said. "I obviously knew we were playing really well. There was a little bit of adjustment, playing wing, things like that. I thought everyone played great, and I'm happy we got the win."
Crosby played for the first time since he was forced to the sidelines on Dec. 5. He got on the score sheet with an assist, but his presence provided so much more that can't be analyzed by numbers.
"I think he played a great game," said Matt Cooke, who scored two goals while playing on a new third line with Crosby. "He draws so much attention when he is on the ice. People are worried about how good he is. That makes the players on the ice with him that much better."
That showed throughout as the Penguins became the first team this season to score five goals against the Rangers.
"That was the only way we could catch them, by beating them because they were winning a lot," said Marc-Andre Fleury, who was overshadowed despite making 29 saves in his 38th win of the season, and ninth in the streak. "They are tough to reach. Tonight was a big game for us."
Crosby assisted on Chris Kunitz's goal that made it 4-2 at 3:01 of the third period, shortly after the Rangers had killed a 4-minute, high-sticking penalty on Stu Bickel. Crosby swung behind the New York net and found Kunitz in the left circle for a shot that beat Martin Biron.
Pascal Dupuis pushed the Penguins' lead to 5-2 at 7:35. Crosby didn't figure in the scoring on that one, as Dupuis put in a rebound of defenseman Paul Martin's shot, but he was on the ice for it. Cooke gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 2:54 in, and Malkin and Cooke connected 1:22 apart in the second period to stretch the advantage to 3-1.
Carl Hagelin got the Rangers even at 1 in the first period, and Marian Gaborik brought New York within 3-2 late in the second with his 35th goal. Brad Richards had two assists, and Gaborik and Hagelin both had one for the potent line that has scored the team's last seven goals over three games.
"We need to get some other guys going in behind it," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "A few guys are struggling. I'm really excited at what Richie's line is doing, but we have to come back in there with something that can handle defensive stuff, and another line that can score a goal or two."
PHT: Tuukka Rask has frustrated the Blackhawks to the tune of a 1.22 GAA and .959 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Final. Can Chicago find any luck in Game 4?
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