PITTSBURGH (AP) — The standings say the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins are tied atop the hyper competitive Metropolitan Division. On the ice at the moment, there appears to be plenty of separation.
Sidney Crosby picked up his NHL-leading 22nd goal, Evgeni Malkin added a goal and two assists and the Penguins overwhelmed the Rangers late in a 7-2 romp on Tuesday night that gave the defending Stanley Cup champions a share of the division lead.
Bryan Rust, Phil Kessel, Justin Schultz, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bonino also scored for the Penguins. Matt Murray made 26 saves and Pittsburgh cruised despite missing injured defensemen Kris Letang and Trevor Daley.
“Everyone chipped in,” Crosby said. “Some nights, you have guys who are on and some guys have tough nights. I felt like tonight everybody was involved and creating things. From the goalie out, everybody played well.”
Michael Grabner collected his team-high 14th goal for New York and Matt Puempel added his second, but New York struggled to keep pace. Antti Raanta stopped 40 of 47 shots and allowed four third-period goals after the Rangers had pulled within 3-2.
The Penguins have outscored New York 13-3 over their last two games against each other. No other team has put up more than five goals on the Rangers this season.
“The schedule just caught up to our guys,” New York coach Alain Vigneault said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The Rangers entered with an NHL-best 23 wins, though all it had done is keep them just ahead of Pittsburgh, Columbus, Washington and Philadelphia. The Penguins briefly claimed the top spot last week before a pair of overtime losses last weekend to Los Angeles and Toronto, a 27-hour stretch in which Pittsburgh’s high-powered lineup managed all of one goal.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan tinkered with the lines in search of a spark and found one seemingly everywhere he looked, whether it was putting Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz together with Malkin on the second line or reuniting the “HBK” line of Kessel, Bonino and Carl Hagelin that worked so well during last spring’s run to the Stanley Cup. Ten Penguins collected at least one point and seven finished with two or more.
“When we load up on the top six (forwards), it’s an easier matchup game for our opponents,” Sullivan said. “The balance makes us more difficult to play against.”
Their meeting on the eve of the official start of winter was more of a litmus test of sorts for two teams that won’t face each other again until March 31. The Penguins dominated the opening 20 minutes, peppering Raanta early while dictating the pace. Crosby gave Pittsburgh the lead 5:55 into the first, skating down the slot then redirecting Ian Cole’s shot over Raanta’s stick for his team-high eighth power play goal of the season.
“This group’s been together long enough now that each individual has to know what it takes for our group to be successful,” Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We can’t afford to be sleeping out the start there and kind of crawl our way through, I guess.”
The Penguins went in front for good 4:43 into the second when Malkin drilled a one-timer past Raanta off a cross-ice feed from Kunitz. Kessel found himself to the left of the New York goal then deked his way to the front of the net. His shot caromed off Raanta and just over the goal line before New York’s Nick Holden could scoop it out.
Grabner briefly gave the Rangers life when he beat Murray 1:52 into the third, but Schultz restored the two-goal cushion just over two minutes later. When Crosby hit a darting Rust with a slick centering pass, Rust flicked it into the net , putting the Penguins on their way to tying the Rangers atop the Met. Goals by Hornqvist and Bonino turned it into a blowout in the final minutes.
“When they made it 3-2, we knew on the bench if we take our foot off the gas, they were going to jam it down our throats,” Rust said. “We just had to turn it up a notch.”
NOTES: New York scratched forward Rick Nash, who is expected to miss at least three games after sustaining a groin injury late in a 3-2 overtime win over New Jersey. Nash missed four games earlier this month with a separate groin injury. … The Penguins went 3 for 5 on the power play. The Rangers were 0 for 3. … Pittsburgh is 14-1-2 when Crosby scores a goal. … The Penguins are 8-0-2 in December. … Murray is 12-0-1 in his last 13 home starts. … Who needs Santa when you have Crosby? As he headed for the dressing room after the final horn, the two-time MVP circled back to give one of his sticks to a young girl holding a handmade sign that read “Sid, can I have your stick?”
Rangers: Will sandwich a two-game homestand around Christmas when they host Minnesota on Friday.
Penguins: Visit Nashville on Thursday.