Make that a season sweep for the Islanders and a leg up in the Metropolitan Division.
Behind superb goaltending from Thomas Greiss, who made 36 saves, and sparked by three second-period goals in 6:17 from Shane Prince, Casey Cizikas and Frans Nielsen, the visiting Islanders beat the Rangers, 4-1, on Thursday night for the fourth time this season, tied their crosstown rivals in points and pulled into third place in the division standings because they have a game in hand.
The third-place finisher will face the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins — who wrapped up second place and home-ice advantage in the Metro with a 4-3 overtime win over the Capitals on Thursday night — in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs next week.
The team in fourth place — currently the Rangers — will claim the first wild card and play the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers in the first round.
At 45-27-9 and 99 points, the Rangers have one game remaining against the Red Wings tomorrow afternoon at the Garden. The Islanders (45-26-9, 99) play their final two in Brooklyn against the Sabres and Flyers.
At this point, the first tiebreaker belongs to the Rangers, who have 42 wins in regulation and overtime to the Islanders’ 40. Head-to-head wins is the second.
Antti Raanta relieved Henrik Lundqvist in the third period and Kevin Klein’s goal through a screen with 2:48 left allowed the Rangers to avoid their fifth shutout of the season. But John Tavares’ empty-netter with 32 seconds left, his 32nd goal, sealed it.
“You want to get ready for a good game, of course, but in the back of your head, you start focusing on next week and what’s ahead, no question about it,” said Lundqvist, who made 13 saves. “You know you’re in [the playoffs], but at the same time, for some reason this year, they’ve been better. You have to give it to them, they’ve been playing well. They’re really good in the middle of the ice, creating openings. That’s why they’re a good team.”
The Rangers outshot the Islanders 28-16 after 40 minutes, but Greiss was sharp. “We controlled the puck the first two periods and had a lot of great looks,” Marc Staal said. “It’s disappointing we weren’t able to get a couple when we had the momentum. They’re a team that you don’t have to give them very much and they can hurt you.”
The first wound came when Prince spun loose in front and got his stick on Marek Zidlicky’s long shot; the puck bounced off Dan Boyle’s leg and past Lundqvist at 13:28 for a 1-0 lead. Three Rangers then were caught watching Prince, who cut to the left side of the net and passed in front to the untouched Cizikas for a 2-0 lead with 1:22 left. With Keith Yandle in the box for a questionable tripping, Nielsen buried a beautiful pass from Tavares at 19:45 for the three-goal lead.
“The first goal they get a bounce off Boyler, their second is a misread and they get a power-play goal on a great play by a great player,” Derek Stepan said. “In the third, we’ve got to learn to play against a trap like that.”