NEW YORK (AP) — Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins are only three points above the postseason cutoff in the Eastern Conference, they are starting to look more like the team that often settles near the top.
Sure, they still miss injured captain Sidney Crosby and other sidelined stars, but Evgeni Malkin is doing his best to pick up the scoring slack.
Richard Park scored the go-ahead goal 2:23 into the third period, and Malkin padded the lead with two late tallies to give the suddenly hot Penguins a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Thursday night.
The Penguins have won four straight after a six-game skid and earned their first win in three tries this season against New York, which leads Boston by one point atop the East.
“It’s always hard to play against the Rangers,” said Malkin, who has seven goals in the Penguins’ winning streak. “It’s tough because they have a great team and they are the best team now in the NHL.”
Chris Kunitz gave Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead in the first period, but the Penguins entered the third locked in a tie. Backed by 30 saves for Marc-Andre Fleury and the late goals from Park and Malkin, the Penguins got out of New York with their winning streak intact heading into Friday’s home game against Montreal.
“We deserved to win because we played better in the third period,” Malkin said. “We shoot more and we have scoring chances more. It’s a great feeling, but we play (Friday) and we need to play the same again.”
Park finished a crisp, three-way passing play with Matt Cooke and Deryk Engelland that worked right-to-left across the Rangers zone, and beat Henrik Lundqvist with a shot inside the left post. Park has four goals this season, but two in three games since an 11-game absence because of a broken foot.
Malkin scored with 12:50 remaining to make it 3-1, turning a giveaway by Marc Staal into a backhander under the crossbar, and added an empty-netter with 1:40 left. Malkin has 24 goals this season, including seven in four games.
He called his first goal lucky, downplaying his skills on the backhand.
His coach disagreed.
“I wouldn’t use lucky. No,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “There wasn’t a lot there in the second period, and he stuck with it. He kept playing the right way and gets rewarded there.”
Fleury played in his 19th straight game, and isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
“I feel all right,” he said. “I don’t count them. It’s a lot more fun now that we’re winning, definitely.”
Carl Hagelin scored New York’s lone goal, and Lundqvist made 32 saves for the Rangers, 2-3 since a 10-1 spurt. This was their first game since a win over Nashville on Tuesday prompted team owner James Dolan to suggest the Rangers (29-12-4) were “pretty close” to the Stanley Cup title.
“I guess everyone is used to those five-game winning streaks, those seven-game winning streaks,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “It’s not going to be easy.
“We gathered ourselves, and I thought we played really well, but for a space of five minutes we had some bad reads and a couple of struggles with some players. They are that quick and that good, and they beat us.”
New York tied it 1-1 at 10:06 of the second period on Hagelin’s eighth goal. Hagelin took a pass from Marian Gaborik, glided into the left circle and shoved a shot between Fleury’s pads.
The Penguins got some good news on the injury front with the return of defenseman Kris Letang. Letang had missed 21 games since sustaining a concussion on Nov. 26 at Montreal. They are still missing Crosby and fellow forward Jordan Staal.
“Everyone plays harder when Sid is out, but we don’t think about injuries,” Malkin said. “We play our system, we know how to play. We just maybe try to play better defensively.”
The Rangers started out sluggish and sloppy, and the Penguins took advantage 3:16 in on Kunitz’s 14th goal.
Kunitz found defenseman Paul Martin streaking down the middle of the ice. Martin came in alone on Lundqvist and got off a shot that made a loud thud against Lundqvist’s pad. The crowd cheered the save, but Kunitz got to the rebound in the slot and scored.
“We made some major mental mistakes in the third period that cost us the game,” Tortorella said. “Did we play the full sixty? No. But for the middle part of that game I thought we were right where we wanted to be.”
New York snapped out of its funk over the second half of the first period, perhaps inspired by a fight between Stu Bickel and Pittsburgh’s Eric Tangradi at 8:56. The shots were 8-0 Pittsburgh then, but closed to 8-6 over the next few minutes.
“For a while when we were winning a lot of games we did all the little things really well,” Lundqvist said. “That’s just what we have to come back to.
“We have to do everything, if not perfectly, really well to win games. We have to work really hard to get our points.”
NOTES: Fleury played in 20 consecutive games from Dec. 18, 2008, until Jan. 30 2009. … Kunitz scored for just the second time in 12 games. … The Rangers were 0 for 2 on the power play, making them 0 for 14 in seven games and 2 for 35 in 15, dating to Dec. 20 against New Jersey. … D Ben Lovejoy came out of the Penguins lineup to make room for Letang, who assisted on Malkin’s goal.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)