NEW YORK -- Earlier this week, New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather declared the Pittsburgh Penguins "the best team in the league." Whether his comments were gamesmanship or genuine, he might be right.
In Sidney Crosby's heralded return, the Penguins dominated the Rangers 5-2 on Thursday night for their 10th straight win and delivered a distinct message to their Atlantic Division foes.
That staggering lead you once had? No longer safe.
With the decisive victory -- one that left Penguins winger Arron Asham singing "New York, New York" as he left the ice for the visitor's dressing room -- Pittsburgh pulled within four points of the East-leading Rangers in the standings with one game in hand.
"If we want to get to first place, we have to go through those guys," Penguins forward James Neal said. "That was our focus tonight. It was a big one."
The game was a critical crossroads for the two teams, who seem to be trending in opposite directions.
With the return of Crosby and Letang, the Penguins are looking more dangerous by the day. If they can rattle off nine straight without two of their best players, what will happen now that they're back?
And although the Black-and-Blueshirts have clawed and scratched their way to first place with a remarkable level of resilience, injuries seem to be taking a toll. Already without their captain, Ryan Callahan, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers lost another top-six forward when Artem Anisimov was forced from Thursday's game with an upper-body injury.
Which brings up the issue of depth.
With Crosby back after playing only eight games in 14 months because of post-concussion symptoms, the Penguins are rolling three legitimate scoring lines while the Rangers have struggled to find the same balance.
"We need to get some other lines scoring, too," center Brian Boyle said. "Those guys are carrying the load for us."
Coach John Tortorella -- whose team was missing starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (flu) -- said the team needs not only more secondary scoring, but also better defensive play.
"I'm really excited at what Richie's line is doing but we have to come back in there with something that can handle defensive stuff," coach John Tortorella said, "another line that can score a goal or two."
Thursday's match was the teams' third and final meeting at Madison Square Garden, but the two clubs will square off in the season's penultimate game in Pittsburgh on April 5.
"We get them one more time," Richards said. "We're still in first place and we're still a good team. We've got guys coming back soon and we are going to keep looking toward Saturday now and getting those two points [vs. Colorado]."
By the time the Rangers and Penguins meet again, there will likely be playoff implications on the line.
Said Boyle, "It's going to be a battle, for sure."