NEW YORK -- When Marc-Andre Fleury heard the question following the Pittsburgh Penguins' emphatic 5-2 victory Thursday against the East-leading New York Rangers, he smiled and rolled his eyes, seemingly eager to answer the question with an equally emphatic yes.
Are the Penguins, winners of 10 straight, the best team in the NHL when at full strength?
Fleury, despite the domination shown with Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang back in the lineup, laughed and gave a diplomatic answer.
"I don't like to say stuff like that," said Fleury, who didn't say "no" to the question after making 29 saves to earn his 38th victory. "I think we're playing pretty solid hockey these days. It's a long season -- nothing's over. We have to keep going and trying to get points to catch the Rangers. Everybody feels pretty confident no matter what the score is. We always believe we can win games."
Thursday's game was only the fifth this season in which the Penguins had Crosby, Letang and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup together. Crosby was returning after a three-month layoff after suffering his second concussion in less than a year in December, while Letang was back after missing five games after battling headaches -- but not a concussion, according to the Penguins -- after a hit to the head against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 29.
Letang had missed nearly two months earlier this season with a concussion, leaving the Penguins without their top defenseman and center for long stretches.
Despite playing shorthanded for most the season, the Penguins are now just four points back of the Rangers for the top spot in the East with a game in hand.
Evgeni Malkin, who is the frontrunner for the Hart Trophy, scored his 39th goal of the season in the second period to the Penguins in front for good. Matt Cooke scored his 13th and 14th goals of the season, while Chris Kunitz added his 21st and Pascal Dupuis his 19th in the third period.
Crosby and Letang also made their presences known; Crosby had 2 assists and was plus-3 in 16:00, while Letang had an assist and was plus-5 in 24:22.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had a hard time containing his excitement afterward about having a full complement of players.
"It's certainly the start of seeing a healthy team," Bylsma said. "It's matchups. It's what you can do. To get different looks on the ice, there was a lot you can see there and it'd be tough to play against. If you can get those guys rolling and going, that would be good for us."
The plan all along was to play Crosby about 15 minutes, so Bylsma nearly hit the nail on the head in that respect. That helped Crosby feel comfortable in his second comeback game of the season.
"It was pretty much what I expected as far as ice time, the way I felt, everything," Crosby said. "It felt pretty good. It felt like I was able to focus on what I was able to do. It felt like I got more comfortable as the game went on."
Bylsma also raved about Letang.
"Plus-5, man. That's pretty remarkable," Bylsma said. "That's a 77 if you're counting golf scores. He's just so strong in so many areas of the game, offensively and defensively with the puck, his skating ability. Putting him back in there with Paul Martin immediately adds to how we defend, but also to how we move the puck as well. I thought Kris looked strong again."
While the Penguins were healthy, the Rangers were far from it. Henrik Lundqvist (flu), Ryan Callahan (foot) and Michael Del Zotto (hip) all were out of the lineup, leaving backup Martin Biron to start in net for the second straight game. He was under attack from the outset.
Crosby was on the ice for the Penguins' first goal, although he didn't factor into the scoring.
Cooke one-timed a shot from the slot that Biron stopped, but the puck popped up into the air and landed in the crease. While desperately trying to clear the puck, Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel instead deflected it into his net to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead at 2:54 of the first period.
The Penguins continued to push for a second goal on a pair of power plays. Thanks largely to the goaltending of Biron, the Pens went 0-for-2 during the power plays despite firing six shots on goal, most of them of high quality.
That allowed the Rangers a chance to draw even on Carl Hagelin's goal at 13:36. The play started with Marian Gaborik working the puck around Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik and into the crease. Out of the chaos that ensued, Hagelin was able to fire home a shot with Fleury scrambling at the other goal post.
Two goals in the first 2:31 of the second period put the Penguins in command.
First, it was Malkin making it 2-1 by taking a past at the left post, moving to his backhand, and sliding it under Biron. James Neal made the play happen, stripping Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh and making the pass across the top of the crease to Malkin.
Cooke scored his second of the game 1:12 later, finishing a perfect pass from Tyler Kennedy to make it 3-1. Biron had no chance with Cooke uncovered at the left post and Kennedy firing a hard pass across the top of the crease from the right side.
In a blink, a tight game turned into one the Penguins controlled.
"They're a professional team and whether you turn the puck over or make mistakes, they're going to make you pay for it," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said.
"You always have to look at your own game and how you're playing," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "I thought certain plays could have had better reads and better decisions. With a skilled team like that, you have to be sharper in your end zone, and we weren't."
Gaborik broke through to make it 3-2 with 5:28 left in the second period with his 35th of the season. He escaped the check of Penguins center Jordan Staal, took a pass in the slot from Brad Richards, and snapped a shot that beat Fleury to the stick side.
It was the Rangers' seventh straight goal from either Gaborik, Hagelin or Richards. The last Ranger besides those three to score was Brian Boyle during the second period of a game against the Islanders on Sunday. Boyle's line was on the ice for two goals against Thursday.
It was a toxic mix that was poison to the Rangers' chances of gaining a stranglehold in the East.
"Richie's line played really good tonight," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "We need to get some other guys going behind it. Brian Boyle's line (with Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko) can't get scored on as much as they are getting scored on. They generate some but they are getting scored on too much."
Kunitz gave the Penguins breathing room early in the third period, snapping a shot from the bottom of the left circle that beat Biron over his blocker. Crosby set up the goal by carrying the puck behind the net and slipping it out to a cutting Kunitz.
Dupuis put it away at 7:35 of the period. Crosby re-directed a Letang shot that Biron stopped, but Dupuis, positioned to the left of the Rangers' net, scored off the rebound.
It was a thorough effort by the Penguins that has them knocking on the door of first place in the East. If their superb play and the Rangers' inconsistent ways continue, the Penguins will be kicking that door down sooner than later.
These teams meet for the final time this season in Pittsburgh on April 5.
"We want to get first in the division," Bylsma said. "That’s' been our goal all along. That's not something new. That's not something we dreamed up three weeks ago. We wanted that to be the case. We've been a long ways away -- 10, 11, 12 points at times. But we've put this 10 in a row together and we're in a situation with the Rangers ahead of us and want to catch them for first in the division."
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