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Crosby has assist in return after 40-game absence as Pens top Rangers 5-2 to tighten East race

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins are quickly being answered.

Questions such as: How good would the Penguins be if Sidney Crosby and the rest of their injured players were healthy in time for the playoffs? Will the return of Crosby to a club surging without him disrupt the mojo that had the Penguins storming toward the top of the Eastern Conference?

On one Thursday night under the glare of intense media attention in the heart of New York, Crosby returned from a three-month absence caused by recurring concussion symptoms and helped the Penguins thoroughly beat the New York Rangers 5-2 for Pittsburgh's 10th straight victory.

Not only didn't the Penguins skip a beat as they welcomed their captain back into the lineup, they thrived. Crosby earned only one assist on the score sheet, but he was on the ice for three of Pittsburgh's goals.

Now the questions gaining lots of steam throughout the NHL: Are the Penguins the new threat to come out of the East, and can anyone stop them?

"I don't like to say stuff like that," said Marc-Andre Fleury, who was overshadowed despite making 29 saves in his 38th win of the season, and ninth in the streak. "We're playing pretty solid hockey these days. It's a long season and nothing is over. We have to keep going, trying to get points, trying to catch the Rangers. Everybody feels pretty confident."

The Penguins are suddenly the picture of health, and the NHL's hottest team is making the playoff race a fight to the finish.

Crosby returned from a 40-game absence along with defenceman Kris Letang, who missed the past five because concussion issues. That gave the Penguins their most complete lineup in months, and Pittsburgh responded by thumping the slumping and beat-up Rangers.

The Penguins have beaten the Rangers twice during their spurt and now trail them by four points. Pittsburgh has 13 games left, compared to 12 for New York.

Crosby was hoping he wouldn't mess up any chemistry created by his teammates while he was out.

"I didn't want to be that guy," said the 24-year-old centre, who got rare playing time at wing. "I obviously knew we were playing really well. There was a little bit of adjustment, playing wing, things like that. I thought everyone played great, and I'm happy we got the win."

Crosby played for the first time since he was forced to the sidelines on Dec. 5. His presence was felt way beyond what can be analyzed by numbers. He took 18 shifts, and the Penguins scored on three without allowing any.

"I think he played a great game," said Matt Cooke, who scored two goals while playing on a new third line with Crosby. "He draws so much attention when he is on the ice. People are worried about how good he is. That makes the players on the ice with him that much better."

That showed throughout as the Penguins became the first team this season to score five goals against the Rangers.

Crosby joined Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on a line. 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.

"That was the only way we could catch them, by beating them because they were winning a lot," Fleury said.

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 defenceman Paul Martin's shot, but he was on the ice for it. Cooke gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 2:54 in, and Malkin and Cooke connected 1:22 apart in the second period to stretch the advantage to 3-1.

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.

"We need to get some other guys going in behind it," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "A few guys are struggling. 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, and another line that can score a goal or two."

Biron stopped 27 shots, but the Rangers lost for the fourth time in six 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 defenceman Michael Del Zotto (hip), who has missed five of eight.

"We get them one more time," Richards said of the Rangers' last meeting with Pittsburgh on April 5. "We're still in first place and we're still a good team. We have guys coming back soon and we are going to keep plugging away."

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 warm-ups. 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.

He looked to be more relaxed in his play than he was in his first return. Crosby took 18 shifts that totalled 16 minutes of ice time — exactly the limit Penguins coach Dan Bylsma wanted to hit.

"I was pretty excited last time. I was excited this time, too, but I didn't want to get caught doing too much," Crosby said. "Just making sure I was responsible out there, doing the right things. All those details are important in games like this."

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.

Bylsma laughed off questions earlier Thursday about the potential "problems" that could arise in getting Crosby back into the lineup. A performance like this one from No. 87 should be enough to stop those questions.

"I hope so," he said, again with a laugh. "I am sure there is going to be another one somewhere."

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