Pens, Rangers’ stars don’t shine alone

The NHL, like all other North American professional sports leagues, is driven by its stars. Sure, it is more of a team game than Major League Baseball, which revolves around one-on-one matchups between pitchers and hitters, or the NBA, where one or two superstars can turn any team (except maybe the Knicks) into an instant contender.

In the NHL, throwing together a talented fantasy roster does not ensure success because everyone on the roster needs to adhere to the team system.

But that does not mean a team of second-, third- and fourth-line pluggers can win a Stanley Cup if they all stick to a coach’s well-thought-out game plan. Star power, or players with generational talent, are required.

So in Sidney Crosby’s second return to action of the season on Thursday night, he joined Hart Trophy favorite Evgeni Malkin to help the Penguins beat the Rangers 5-2 in New York. He also showed why, despite the current the standings, Pittsburgh and not New York, or the reeling defending champion Bruins should be considered the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Rangers’ answers to Malkin and Crosby, at least forward-wise, are recent star free-agent acquisitions center Brad Richards and winger Marian Gaborik.

Richards and Gaborik were expected by most to open the 2011-12 season on the same line. When they didn’t click immediately, coach John Tortorella split them up and got results strong enough to propel the Rangers to the top of the Eastern Conference for most of the season, each elevating the play of his linemates.

Ryan Callahan, who has flanked Richards for most of the year, has already surpassed his single-season career-high total of 23 goals and sophomore Derek Stepan, who has centered Gaborik for most of the year, has already equaled his rookie output of 45 points.

However, since Gaborik and Richards were reunited within the past week they have carried the Rangers offense, at least up until Thursday’s loss to Pittsburgh. During that game, the Rangers were reminded how important it is to have two lines that feature stars who can produce consistent offense.

Watching Malkin and Crosby skate on separate lines for Pittsburgh was evidence enough.

“Richie’s line played really well tonight,” Tortorella told reporters after the game. “We need to get some other guys going in behind them.”

The Rangers’ second line consisted of Artem Anisimov, Stepan and Brandon Dubinsky. All are very good players who should have long and lucrative NHL careers. But at the present time, not one of them can elevate the play of those around him like Crosby, Malkin, Richards or Gaborik can.

The good news for the Rangers, though, is that their top superstar is not a forward.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has arguably been the best in the NHL at his position this year, so if the Rangers live up to the expectations set by their strong regular season performance in the next two months, Lundqvist will be as big a part of that as anyone else on the roster, though he did not dress for Thursday night’s game, as he was recovering from the flu.

If the two teams meet in the playoffs, though, it will be up to Tortorella to configure his forwards to give Lundqvist, the franchise player, as much offensive support as possible.