It is extremely early in the NHL season, of course. But the Metropolitan Division standings entering Thursday night’s Islanders-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden were unsightly.
Last place: Rangers. Next-to-last place: Islanders.
Then they played the game. Net result: No change at the very bottom.
The Islanders’ entertaining, 4-3 shootout victory in the teams’ first meeting this season improved their record to 3-3-1 while the Rangers fell to 1-5-2. It was the Islanders’ ninth victory in their past 11 visits to the Garden.
The winning team was relieved, after being dominated in the third period and coughing up a 3-1 lead. The losing team was frustrated.
“I think some of the bounces aren’t going our way,” said the Rangers’ Brendan Smith, who had a goal disallowed because of a couple of bounces off his skates. “That’s life. That’s hockey, and that’s sports.”
The Islanders salvaged the victory by winning the shootout, 2-1. Both teams scored in the first round. In the second Jaroslav Halak stopped Mika Zibanejad, and John Tavares followed by putting the puck over Henrik Lundqvist.
“I just kind of went in and tried to change speeds and not try to give anything away,” Tavares said.
Halak, playing in his 400th career game, then stopped David Desharnais in the third round.
It was a dispiriting finish for the Rangers, given their record and the way they played in the third period. Trailing 3-1 after two, they controlled the action down the stretch and came within one goal on a score by Mats Zuccarello at 3:29.
It appeared they had tied it on Smith’s goal with 7:53 left, but after that was waved off because of a kicking motion they tied it for real at 14:06 on a nifty rush by Kevin Hayes, who sneaked the puck past Halak on the short side.
“I tried to seal the post and somehow it went in,” Halak said. “It looked like the puck had eyes and found a way.”
The Islanders nearly won it in regulation time, but Lundqvist made two saves on Josh Bailey in the final five seconds, the second while lying on his side.
The first score for the Islanders was an encouraging sign: their first power-play goal of the season in their 21st try.
“We just needed a goal,” coach Doug Weight said. “I think we did some good things prior to today, but you need to break through.”
Ryan Pulock’s soft shot bounced off Lundqvist’s left pad and onto the stick of Anders Lee, who stuffed home the puck 2:40 into the game.
The Rangers tied it on a goal by Desharnais, then 64 seconds later the Islanders regained the lead when Brock Nelson whistled a wrist shot from the slot past Lundqvist’s stick side.
It was a shocking start for two teams that have struggled to score early in the season. Before Thursday, the Isles had scored three first-period goals in six games.
The Islanders went ahead 3-1 1:15 into the second period on a goal by Mathew Barzal — the first in his NHL career. The 20-year-old sped down the left side and tucked the puck under Lundqvist from a sharp angle.
Halak improved to 7-1 in his past eight head-to-head matchups against Lundqvist.
The Islanders acknowledged it was a harrowing finish, but were in no mood to apologize for a victory, especially against the Rangers.
“You can’t always blame your hockey club for hanging on for a win,” Weight said. “It’s tough . . . It’s a big win.”
For the Rangers, one point beat no point at all, but it is starting to get late early on their 2017-18 season.
“We left everything out there, especially in the third,” Lundqvist said. “Like AV told the group: We have two choices here — to feel sorry for ourselves or go out and really try to make the most of the situation. We were close again to getting the win.”
Not close enough.