NEW YORK -- These two points don't count for any more than their other 52.
The Penguins don't get extra credit in the standings for beating a quality opponent, even if they do it on the road.
But that doesn't mean their 4-1 victory against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Thursday night should be confused with most of the 24 that preceded it.
Not when it was their first in three meetings with the Rangers and ended a streak of six consecutive losses to the teams -- New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey -- that were ahead of them in the Atlantic Division standings when the night began.
- Matchup: Montreal Canadiens at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Brent Johnson for Penguins. Carey Price for Canadiens.
- Penguins: Are 2-0 against Canadiens, including 3-1 victory at home Oct. 20. ... RW James Neal has been called for team-high 10 penalties at home. ... Have not beaten any team except Carolina (twice) at Consol Energy Center since Chicago Dec. 20.
- Canadiens: Have gone 1-6 in shootouts this season. ... LW Max Pacioretty has four goals in past six games. ... Own NHL's top-ranking penalty killing on road, with success rate of 92.5 percent.
- Hidden stat: Penguins have scored just six goals in regulation in past five home games.
"It's definitely nice to get this one," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 30 of 31 shots.
"They're the best, or one of the best, in the league now, so it was a big challenge for us. Those are big points."
The victory extended the Penguins' winning streak to four games and hoisted them into a tie with New Jersey for third in the Atlantic and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
They aren't poised to overtake the Rangers for first in the East, certainly, but neither are they in imminent danger of being overtaken by teams currently outside the top eight in the conference.
"We know how big these games are," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "We talked about it. Winning this one was big.
"In the locker room, you look at who's in front of you, and you want to beat these guys. Right now, the way we're playing, why not look at [catching] the teams in front of us?"
The victory, satisfying and significant as it was, wasn't all the Penguins got out of this game. Defenseman Kris Letang, who had missed the previous 21 games because of a concussion, returned to the lineup and logged a team-high 24 minutes, 17 seconds of ice time with no apparent difficulty.
"It was a good game, a good test, to see if I'm in shape, I guess," Letang said. "I felt pretty good out there."
So did center Evgeni Malkin, who scored the final two goals to raise his points total to 54, good for sole possession of first in the NHL scoring race.
The Rangers had done just about everything possible to get Malkin off his game early -- "You could tell that was something they were planning on doing," coach Dan Bylsma said -- but Malkin kept his composure and focus and ended up being the one who put the game out of New York's reach.
He provided an insurance goal at 7:10 of the third period, when he cut left to right across the slot and threw a backhander over goalie Henrik Lundqvist's glove, and sealed the victory with an empty-netter at 18:20.
Malkin described his first as a "lucky goal," and, while he seemed to be the only one who saw it that way, he can only hope that his recent run of good fortune -- seven goals in the past four games, nine in the past seven -- holds for a bit longer.
"It's fun to see him going like this," Letang said. "He's been playing great."
Letang had a pretty fair night himself, assisting on Malkin's first goal and preventing one by the Rangers when he knocked a Dan Girardi shot out of the air with the shaft of his stick in the first period.
"I didn't plan it like that," Letang said, chuckling. "I tried to do a desperate move."
Like just about everything else the Penguins attempted.
The Rangers, conversely, were sluggish at various points, especially in the first and third periods, and were guilty of some seriously bad decisions.
Like when defenseman Marc Staal opted to pinch in the Penguins zone early in the third period, only to have Steve Sullivan chip the puck past him and onto the stick of Matt Cooke, triggering a three-on-one break that led to Richard Park's winning goal a few seconds later.
Cooke fed the puck to defenseman Deryk Engelland, who passed it to Park, and he beat Lundqvist from low the left circle at 2:23 of the third to break a 1-1 tie.
"That would be one where you'd like to give a third assist, because [Sullivan] makes the play that makes it all happen," Bylsma said.
Park's goal put the Penguins in front, and they didn't let up.
"The way we came out in the third was a big statement," Dupuis said.
"I really liked the way we played in the third."
Rangers coach John Tortorella phrased it a bit differently, saying "they fed it to us in the third."
However it's expressed, it was a huge victory for the Penguins. Especially if they can come up with a similar effort when Montreal visits Consol Energy Center tonight.
"It's a great feeling," Malkin said. "But we play [tonight]. And we have to play the same way again."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published January 20, 2012 5:00 AM