The Rangers’ plan was to not allow Sidney Crosby beat them. He did not. But his teammates did.
The Rangers have lost the last three games they have played against their divisional rival following last night’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins. It was also the first time the Rangers have allowed five goals in a regulation game this season.
"I thought that certain plays could have had better reads and better decisions," Marc Staal said. "With a skilled team like that you have to be sharper in your end zone and we weren’t."
The Rangers’ lead over Pittsburgh was trimmed to four points, 95-91, and the teams play once more this season, April 5 at the Consol Energy Center. Conceivably, that game could decide which team finishes with the best record in the conference.
Matt Cooke scored two goals for Penguins, while Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis each added one. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves.
Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik scored both of the Rangers’ goals. The line of Hagelin, Gaborik and Brad Richards have scored 10 of the Rangers’ last 11 goals.
"Richie’s line played really [well] tonight," John Tortorella said. "We need to get some other guys going in behind it. I’m really excited with what Richie’s line is doing. We need to come back in there with something that can handle defensive stuff, another line that can score a goal or two."
Martin Biron, making his second consecutive start as Henrik Lundqvist continues to suffer from the flu, was under siege for most of the night. He finished with 27 saves on 32 shots.
"It’s not on him," Stu Bickel said. "The blame is not on Marty whatsoever."
Crosby’s second return was not the storybook tale that his four-point performance against the Islanders on Nov. 21 was, but he was plus three with a shot on goal and won 11 of 21 faceoffs in 15:12.
The league’s premier player also assisted on Kunitz’s game-deciding goal 3:01 in the third. With the Penguins on a four-minute power play due to Stu Bickel high-sticking Jordan Staal, Crosby found the puck on the half board before setting up Kunitz for a one-timer from the faceoff circle. The goal was Crosby’s normal left wing’s 21st of the year and increased the Pens’ lead to 4-2.
“It was pretty much what I expected as far as ice time, the way I felt, everything. It felt pretty good,” Crosby said. “I was just trying to calm myself a little more than what I was last time.”
Dupuis scored his 19th 4:34 later to end the game for all intents and purposes. Before those goals, the fifth game between the Pens and Rangers was a back-and-forth affair.
Malkin and Cooke scored back-to-back goals in a span of 72 seconds of the second period that allowed the Pens to take a 3-1 lead.
Malkin broke a 1-1 tie with his 39th of the season 1:19 into the period. James Neal started the play by stripping Ryan McDonagh of the puck at the half wall. Neal feathered a cross crease pass to Malkin, whose initial shot was slowed by Biron, but the Hart Trophy candidate followed his shot and poked the puck into the net.
Cooke potted his second of the game at 2:31 to conclude a rush. He had opened the scoring just 2:54 into the match with a fluky goal. Cooke attempted a shot that popped up off of John Mitchell’s stick, then bounced off of Bickel’s glove and rolled into the goal.
Hagelin tied the game 1-1 at the 13:36 mark of the first with his 14th. Gaborik ripped a bomb from the slot at 14:32 of the second to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 3-2.
"There’s going to be ups and downs in the game," Richards said of the momentum swings. "It’s who survives it, who keeps it longer and who doesn’t get hurt."
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.