NEW YORK - Sidney Crosby's return after three months of inactivity didn't hurt the chemistry of the Pittsburgh Penguins one bit as they surged closer to the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.
Crosby played for the first time since another bout with concussion symptoms forced him to the sidelines Dec. 5. He got on the score sheet Thursday night with an assist as the Penguins stretched their winning streak to 10 by beating the Rangers 5-2.
It marked the first time this season New York allowed five goals.
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby looks to pass during Thursday’s game.
Now the Penguins trail the Rangers by just four points in the races for the East and the Atlantic Division, and Pittsburgh has 13 games left - to only 12 for New York - to chase them down.
After missing 40 games during his latest stint on the shelf, Crosby played on a third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Cooke scored twice, Kennedy had two assists and NHL points leader Evgeni Malkin added a goal for the Penguins, who haven't lost since Feb. 19 at Buffalo. Pittsburgh's winning streak started two days later with a 2-0 home victory against the Rangers.
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 three of Pittsburgh's goals.
Cooke gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead just 2:54 in, and Malkin and Cooke connected 1:22 apart in the second period to stretch the advantage to 3-1.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves to earn his ninth win during the Penguins' streak.
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.
Biron stopped 27 shots, but the Rangers lost for the fourth time in five games.
As the Penguins are getting healthy, the Rangers are still missing key cogs from their lineup. Biron was forced to start his second straight game in place of Henrik Lundqvist, New York's No. 1 goalie who is still feeling the effects of the flu. The Rangers were also without forward Ryan Callahan (bruised foot), who sat out for the sixth time in nine games, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (hip), who has missed five of eight.
The Penguins not only got Crosby back on Thursday but also defenseman Kris Letang, who was dealing with concussion issues as well. Letang had missed the previous five games, and had been sidelined for 21 earlier this season.
Crosby, who had two goals and eight assists in eight games this season before Thursday, heard a mixture of cheers and boos when he hit the ice during pregame warmups. The reaction turned more to boos as the game went along when Crosby had the puck.
Crosby made his season debut on Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders, his first game action since January 2011, and had two goals and two assists in that 5-0 home win. He lasted only seven more games before being shut down again.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is looking to limit Crosby's ice time to about 15 minutes as he gets back into the swing of things, placing him on the third line and on the point for power plays. Crosby is expected to play in each of Pittsburgh's remaining games - including two this weekend at New Jersey and Philadelphia to complete a stretch of three games in four days against divisional foes.