Had this been a playoff game -- and it sure looked, sounded and felt like one at the pulsating Nassau Coliseum -- the Islanders and Rangers could have played well into the night.
Dan Girardi's top-shelf goal with 1:49 left in overtime was the only score in a 1-0 Rangers victory in which the Islanders had the better of the play, the Rangers had Henrik Lundqvist (plus both of his posts and his crossbar) and both teams gained a little ground heading into the home stretch of the playoff drive.
"It's the biggest stage, New York vs. New York -- you want to be in front of that many people and play that kind of game,'' said the Islanders' Travis Hamonic. "We just need to find a way to get that second point.''
As it was, the Islanders got only one point despite controlling the game for long stretches and getting tons of traffic in front of Lundqvist, who made 29 saves.
The Isles' hold on seventh place in the East is down to a single point (47-46) over the Rangers, who have a game in hand. The Winnipeg Jets sit ninth, three points behind the Islanders and two behind the Rangers.
From the time in the first period that Lundqvist got his glove on Matt Moulson's door-step rebound try, the Islanders knew they would need a good bounce or two to beat the Rangers' goaltender.
Instead, the Isles hit each post in a two-minute sequence of the second period -- once by Casey Cizikas on a sharp-angle rebound, once by Kyle Okposo on a whip shot through traffic -- and then Colin McDonald snapped a surprise shot from the wing off the crossbar and out early in the third.
"Hank was our backbone,'' Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "There were a lot of bodies around him and pucks ricocheting all over the place. He gave us an opportunity and we end up scoring a goal.''
The Rangers had only three shots on Evgeni Nabokov in the third period, none in the final 15:59, even with a power play in the last minute of regulation after Okposo chopped Girardi's stick in half.
The Isles killed off the second minute in OT, but neither side was budging much until Derick Brassard fed Girardi speeding up the right side behind Josh Bailey. Girardi's second goal of the season sent the Rangers' portion of the sold-out Coliseum into a frenzy. Those fans, along with the larger pro-Isles contingent, had been trading chants and noise all night long in a crackling atmosphere.
Rick Nash was the center of the Isles' attention, with Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald on against the big Rangers star at every opportunity. John Tavares was the focus for the Rangers, and they poked and prodded No. 91 enough to hound Tavares into a frustration roughing penalty.
"It was a great hockey game,'' Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I thought the guys deserved better.''
The Isles are 8-1-2 in their last 11 games, with only one more home game (Tuesday against Florida) before closing the season on a five-game road trip that will decide their fate. The Rangers have three games against teams out of the Eastern playoff chase, but they were in the thick of it Saturday night and came away with the two points they needed.
"That team over there, they deserve to have people come to watch them in this building. They're a good team,'' Tortorella said, though he bristled at the word "rivalry.''
"To me, you need a good, old-fashioned playoff series to make it a rivalry,'' he said.
Saturday night was as close as the Rangers and Islanders have come to one of those in decades.
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