PITTSBURGH — The Penguins and New York Rangers did not have quite as strong a start to the season as they wanted, but things have been looking up for the Metropolitan Division rivals headed into their game Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins (15-10-3) have won four straight, while the Rangers (14-10-2) are 7-3-0 in their past 10 games. Pittsburgh won the only meeting between the two, 5-4 in overtime on Oct. 17 in New York.
The clubs haven’t played a ton of games within the tight Metropolitan Division — Pittsburgh is 3-1-0, New York is 3-3-2 — which gives Tuesday’s matchup a little extra air of importance. That might be especially so for the Rangers, who were on the fringe of a wild-card spot despite being just five points out of first in the division.
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“You just look at the standings,” said New York coach Alain Vigneault, whose team is going into its second of four straight divisional games. Contests versus Washington and New Jersey are ahead this week.
“You don’t want to look too far ahead, but these next three games are against teams that we’re battling with head to head.”
Pittsburgh plays two in a row against Metropolitan teams before a five-game stretch out of the division.
“They’re huge games, tight standings, so every time you play these guys you get up for it and you’ve got to be ready,” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said.
After their practices Monday, both teams pointed to a balanced offense as a top reason for their improved records. The Rangers are doing that without leading scorer Mike Zibanejad, who is sidelined with a concussion.
“We’ve gotten offense from all lines, and everyone is chipping in where they can,” winger Michael Grabner said. “With Mika out, that’s been a big help for our overall game.”
Pittsburgh, even with others pitching in, has been following the path of captain Sidney Crosby, who has a five-game goal streak, with multiple points in each of those games. He has points in 10 of his past 13 games.
Crosby’s 29 points put him in the thick of the team scoring race, along with Phil Kessel, who has 33 points, and Evgeni Malkin (23).
“I’ve said this many times when we’ve played them: You can’t stop Crosby or Malkin or Kessel,” Vigneault said. “They’re going to get some looks. You just hope that the looks that they’re getting are from a decent situation, a decent place. You hope you earn your looks too, offensively.”
In particular, Crosby’s emergence from a stretch where he struggled to get points has sparked Pittsburgh.
“I think his game is inspiring to his teammates,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It certainly is to his coaching staff.
“When he plays that way, I think his energy, his compete level, trickles down the bench. That’s the influence he has on our team. As a result, I think we’re getting a more complete game, a more competitive game throughout our lineup when Sid’s on his game the way he is right now.”
Crosby said he was getting scoring chances even when he wasn’t getting goals and has no insightful explanation for his 12 points in five games.
“I think it’s just pucks going in the net,” he said. “Just try to keep going to the same places and trust it’s going to keep going in.”