One team was playing for little more than pride. Another, for its very playoff existence. And for about 50 minutes of Wednesday night’s game, you would have been hard-pressed to tell which team was which. But leave it to the Islanders to prove once again that it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
In a game the Islanders absolutely needed to win, they waited until late to prove they deserved to. With 7:22 left in the third period, John Tavares’ shot went wide to Anders Lee, near the net. Lee’s blind, backward shuffle found Andrew Ladd, who scored the man-up goal to beat the Rangers, 3-2, at Madison Square Garden.
Thomas Greiss made a stop on Michael Grabner’s point-blank shot on a breakaway with 22 seconds left to help secure the win. Greiss made 34 saves. The Islanders (34-26-12) moved within two points of the Bruins for the final wild-card slot in the East with 10 games to play. They have a game in hand on Boston. The Rangers (45-25-4) have lost seven in a row at home but are 12 points ahead of Boston.
“The two points are crucial,” Tavares said. “I think we’re happy with the way we just kept fighting. We might not have had our best night, but we just stuck with it and then found a way. I think that’s what matters most.”
It was a gutsy, desperate turnaround for a team that appeared to have very little spirit for more than two periods. But as he has done often lately, rookie Josh Ho-Sang provided a much-needed spark just as the light appeared to go out of the Isles.
Five minutes into the third period, Ho-Sang’s centering pass found Anthony Beauvillier — sort of. It hit his skate, and as if imbued with the spirit of the bouncy Ho-Sang himself, it careened off Beauvillier and found Nicolay Kulemin’s skate before skittering by Antti Raanta for a man-up goal and the tie at 2. It was only the third time this season that the Islanders had scored more than one power-play goal, and the first time since Feb. 12.
Before that, the Rangers more or less dominated the show. At 6:36 of the second, Rick Nash made easy work of Thomas Hickey, beating him down the ice to sail a chip shot past Greiss to put the Rangers up 2-1. The Islanders managed only four shots in the first 14 minutes of the second period, struggled with puck possession, and were pretty fortunate to escape down only one goal. It was Nash’s second goal in two games, after not scoring in the previous 10.
“It stings,” Ryan McDonagh said of the wasted effort. “Giving up those (goals), penalty killing, those goals against — whether you want to call them bad bounces or unfortunate luck, it doesn’t matter.”
The Islanders appeared to struggle from the outset, lowlighted by sloppy neutral zone play in the closing minutes of the first. With 1:58 left, Mats Zuccarello, crashing in on a 3-on-2, nearly put the Rangers on top on an ill-positioned Greiss before Scott Mayfield was able to swat the threat away. Zuccarello made them pay later, though. At 2:46 of the second. Mika Zibanejad jostled with Jason Chimera before feeding Zuccarello, who swept in the opening goal from the crease, past Greiss, falling in the opposite direction.
Lee tied it a minute later, on a deflection off Beauvillier’s shot.
“Guys were focused and guys were dialed in,” Lee said. “Sometimes, games fall that way and it takes two periods to get to a team. We have to control our game and our destiny. Tonight was a good example of sticking together and playing.”