(SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Rangers have seemed to turn the corner lately with wins in four of their last five games. Another victory in Friday's road game against the Pittsburgh Penguins would go a long way towards confirming that notion.
The Rangers went 4-1-0 over their last five games in the month of December after suffering through a poor 2-5-2 start to the month. New York also is 2-1-0 so far on a five-game road trip, but the real test comes in tonight's battle against the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center.
With 59 points, Pittsburgh is tops in the Metropolitan Division and is 17 points in front of the division-rival Rangers. The Penguins and Rangers have split two meetings in New York City this season, but Pittsburgh has taken nine of 11 overall in the series and four straight matchups on its home ice.
The Pens also are one of the best home teams in the NHL this season, going 17-3-0 so far in the Steel City. New York, meanwhile, has a solid 12-9-0 road record.
The Rangers last played on Tuesday in Florida and won that New Year's Eve game over the Panthers in a shootout. Dan Girardi scored the tying goal late in regulation, and Brad Richards won it with the lone goal in the shootout, as New York rallied past Florida, 2-1, at BB&T Center.
Henrik Lundqvist made 21 stops in regulation and three more in the game's final segment for New York. It was the second straight win for Lundqvist, who had struggled to a 1-4-2 record during a seven-start stretch from Dec. 7-20.
"He was big for us tonight," said Girardi of Lundqvist. "He made the big saves when he had to. When we needed him he was there, and that's why we've got him back there. He's a pretty big clutch player for us."
Lundqvist expects to get the call in net again on Friday. He is 24-18-7 with a 2.40 goals against average in 49 career games -- all starts -- against the Pens.
In addition to fighting their less-than-stellar recent history against the Pens, the Rangers may have to contend with a healthier Pittsburgh team tonight. Both star forward Evgeni Malkin and top defenseman Kris Letang could make their returns for the Penguins in Friday's divisional clash. Malkin has missed the last eight games with a lower-body injury, while Letang has sat out nine in a row due to an elbow injury that required minor surgery.
Both players practiced on Thursday and are considered questionable for Friday's tilt.
Malkin has 41 points (9 goals, 32 assists) in 32 games this season, while Letang has notched six goals and five assists in just 24 games on the blue line.
Considering their top-billing status in the East and Metro Division, the injuries to Malkin and Letang hasn't hurt the stacked Penguins all that much in the standings. However, one or both of the players could have made a difference in Tuesday's 2-1 road loss against the New Jersey Devils.
Adam Henrique and Michael Ryder both scored and picked up an assist on the other's goal to lead the Devils to the close regulation win over Pittsburgh. The win improved New Jersey's home record against the Penguins since the start of the 2008-09 season to 13-3-0.
Marc-Andre Fleury turned away 28 shots for Pittsburgh, which suffered just its third loss in its last 17 games. Matt Niskanen scored the lone goal in the setback.
"They got an early goal, we had a turnover that they put in our net and got the lead," noted Pens head coach Dan Bylsma. "For the most part that was how the game went all night long. We couldn't get more than a goal. You're not going to win many against this team when you do that."
Friday's tilt is the first of two straight on home ice for the Pens, who will host Winnipeg in their next games on Sunday.