Cook: Cooke steals spotlight from Crosby

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NEW YORK -- And the No. 1 star in the Penguins' emphatic 5-2 win against the New York Rangers Thursday night ...

Matt Cooke.

Las Vegas wouldn't have given odds on that.

"I feel bad I stole the spotlight from Sid," Cooke said.

His partially toothless smile said it all.

Sidney Crosby was back. The Penguins were complete as a team. Their winning streak is at 10 games, tied for the NHL's longest this season. And they -- not the Rangers -- look like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

"It was a lot of fun," Crosby said of his return to the lineup and those of defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin. "I don't think anyone really wants to talk too much about it. We just want to go with it. But it was awesome to have everyone together."

Crosby, playing for the first time since Nov. 5 after missing 40 games with concussion-like symptoms, had just one assist, much less production than in his first comeback Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders when he had two goals and two assists. But in some ways, this performance was better. For one thing, the level of competition was much higher. Despite the loss, the Rangers remain four points ahead of the Penguins in the Eastern Conference. For another, Crosby did a better job of controlling his emotions. There was no X-rated scream of joy that made his mother blush like there was after he scored his first goal against the Islanders.

"I just tried to calm myself a little better," Crosby said. "I didn't want to get caught up trying to do too much."

Cooke started the game on Crosby's line and had two goals, but it won't be enough to keep him there. "I hope I get more chances," Cooke said, although he knows better. "He creates so much out there and is so much fun to play with." Just say it was great for Cooke while it lasted.

Before the end of the first period, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had Crosby skating between Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis. Later, Crosby got some work on the wing for the first time since his rookie year -- with Sullivan on Jordan Staal's line. This was a night to celebrate the team's message-sending third consecutive win against the Rangers, but it also wasn't too early to start tinkering to find the best spot for Crosby with the playoffs fewer than four weeks away. "I would like to keep seeing Jordan Staal with him," Bylsma said, adding it will happen again at times in the games Saturday at New Jersey and Sunday at Philadelphia.

Crosby also slid nicely back on to the power play, as did Letang, who missed five games with concussion-like symptoms. They manned the points on a unit that went 0 for 4 with an asterisk. Letang hit the crossbar after a terrific pass from Crosby in the second period and Chris Kunitz scored the fourth goal to bump the lead to 4-2 after another wonderful Crosby pass only 6 seconds after Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel left the penalty box. It was, essentially, a power-play goal.

That assist was Crosby's only point, but he did so much more. Usually, he's the Penguins' best faceoff man, but he clearly was a bit rusty and went just 11-10 against the Rangers. But wouldn't you know it? Crosby won a big faceoff against Brad Richards midway through the third period, leading to the final goal by Pascal Dupuis.

"He even blocked a shot at the end," Cooke said of Crosby. "He does everything a grinder is supposed to do, only his skill-set lets him do it so much better than anybody else. The little things he does are the same things I take pride in. How can you not do them when your leader is?"

The win means the Penguins are 22-4-1 since their six-game losing streak in early-January. They are 12-1 during that run against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today.

"I didn't want to be that guy [who messed up that success]," Crosby said.

Make no mistake, he didn't.

"I got more comfortable as the game went on," Crosby said. "It went pretty much as I expected."

All but that Cooke as the No. 1 star business, that is.

Crosby couldn't have been happier for his grinding teammate, who now has 14 goals. He gave the Penguins some of that secondary scoring they have talked so much about. Of course, it wouldn't have been a Penguins-Rangers game without a goal from Evgeni Malkin, who has five in five games against the Rangers this season.

Crosby might not have cursed with joy, but he had a hard time controlling his smile during and after the game. It's hard to believe that this was just the 11th game the Penguins have played with Crosby, Malkin and Staal in the lineup together since the start of the 2010-11 season.

They played this game as if they want to make up for lost time.

Can you blame 'em?


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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