PITTSBURGH (AP) — A pair of shutout losses last week briefly cooled off the streaking New York Rangers.
A productive 48-hour span buoyed by the return of Rick Nash’s shooting touch made sure the dip didn’t turn into a slump.
Nash scored 26 seconds into the game then added his NHL-leading 28th goal early in the second period to lift the Rangers to a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.
New York backed up a 2-1 win over Columbus on Friday night with an opportunistic 60 minutes against the Penguins, converting repeated Pittsburgh mistakes and fortunate bounces into their 15th win in their past 18 games.
“It shows the kind of character we have on this team to bounce back after a tough home loss and another loss on the road to Boston,” Nash said. “To come back and get these two wins and in a tough place to play in, it’s a huge deal.”
Derek Stepan also scored twice for the surging Rangers and Derick Brassard had a goal and an assist.
The Rangers pulled within two points of second-place Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division standings after beating the Penguins for three times in four meetings.
Henrik Lundqvist made 32 saves for New York but came away with a sore hand after it slammed into someone’s skate while trying to cover a loose puck.
Not that it stopped Lundqvist from improving to 6-1 in his past seven starts against the Penguins, including three wins in the 2014 playoffs after the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven games. The momentum has barely slowed.
“It’s a good challenge every time to come here and play them,” Lundqvist said. “A lot of times it’s a fast game. Because we respect their skill it looks like we try to play a smart game and make good decisions with the puck.”
Sidney Crosby scored his 15th goal of the season and David Perron added his fifth since coming over from Edmonton two weeks ago. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped just 13 of the 17 shots he faced before being pulled early in the second period.
The Rangers have rocketed up the standings following a sluggish start behind Nash. The rally began with a 4-3 overtime win against the Penguins on Dec. 8.
New York trailed Pittsburgh by 11 points at the time, but has quickly closed the gap in part by dominating the rest of the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers are 13-3-1 against the rest of the division while the Penguins are just 6-8-3.
That mark includes a miserable 48-hour stretch that saw Pittsburgh let a 3-2 third-period lead on the road against the Metropolitan-leading Islanders disappear on Friday night and one of its more sluggish performances of the season. The Penguins have been outscored 9-2 over past 80 minutes.
“You want to make sure you stop it as quick as possible,” Crosby said. “For whatever reason our emotion and intensity level wasn’t there. … We need to make sure we’re more desperate than we have been in the last four periods.”
New York wasted little time taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s sloppy play. Nash pounced when a crossing pass from Pittsburgh’s Brandon Sutter to Kris Letang slipped between Letang’s stick and his skates, leading to a two-on-one the other way. Fleury couldn’t get a piece of Nash’s wrist shot over the blocker and the Rangers were up 1-0 just 26 seconds in.
Brassard made it a two-goal game less than six minutes later, collecting a rebound and beating Fleury to the glove side.
Crosby briefly gave the Penguins a boost when he scored for the fourth time in his past seven games, poking home a rebound from in front on the power play to cut it to 2-1 with 4:52 left in the first period.
The Penguins would get no closer. Nash’s second goal came on a fluky bounce off Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi’s stick and Stepan’s blast made it 4-1 before the game reached its midway point.
That would be it for Fleury. The goaltender, selected to the All-Star team last week for only the second time in his career after keeping the Penguins near the top of the Eastern Conference despite an injury plagued first half of the season, skated to the bench as backup Thomas Greiss entered then took his frustrations out on his stick.
NOTES: Brassard has nine points in his past eight games against Pittsburgh. … New York went 1 for 6 on the power play. Pittsburgh went 1 for 3 with the man advantage and has scored a power-play goal in five straight games. … The Penguins play at Philadelphia on Tuesday. … The Rangers host Ottawa on Tuesday.
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