With the crazy up-and-down performances the Rangers have turned in of late, the question heading into Sunday’s game against the Islanders was which Blueshirts team would show up — the one that beat the Islanders on Friday night in the first of a two-game set at Nassau Coliseum or the one that lost to Pittsburgh on Thursday?
It turned out both versions showed up in the same game.
The Rangers were awful in the first period and much better in the second and third, but they ultimately ended up losing when defenseman Ryan Pulock scored at 1:13 of overtime to give the Islanders a 3-2 win and a split of the two games.
The Rangers did earn a point, which pulled them to within four points of Boston for the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division. Boston lost to Washington, 8-1.
The Rangers (19-16-6, 44 points) have 15 games remaining in the regular season and the Bruins have 17.
Coach David Quinn and his men had no choice but to view the glass as half-full afterward.
"I’m disappointed we didn’t get the two points, but, you know, every point’s life and death right now,’’ Quinn said.
"You’ve got to take positives from these games,’’ said defenseman Brendan Smith, whose third goal of the season tied it at 2-2 at 12:16 of the second period. "It’s a long season, and you’ve got to find a way to keep the momentum going. And at this time, every point counts. And I know it’s cliche; everybody says it. But it’s true, especially when you’re in the hunt, like we are.’’
Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin (29 saves) fell to 0-2-1 against the Islanders this season and 0-1 against his good friend Ilya Sorokin (24 saves), who started in net for the Islanders.
An early penalty to Chris Kreider, who was sent off for lifting the puck over the glass at 1:23 of the first period, led to the Islanders scoring first, on a power-play goal by Kyle Palmieri, and then dominating the first period. The Isles outshot the Rangers 17-8 and went ahead 2-0 when Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored with 7.6 seconds remaining in the period.
But the Rangers dominated the second period and tied the score on goals by their third-pair defensemen, Libor Hajek and Smith. Quinn, unhappy with Kreider’s play, dropped him to the fourth line in the period and moved 21-year-old rookie Vitali Kravtsov up to the first line to take Kreider’s place.
"We were struggling so badly during that first period,’’ Quinn said of those moves. "I really like the way Kravy’s playing [and] I thought I’d give that line a little bit different look. That line hasn’t been as sharp as it normally is, and it was just something that I thought we needed to do.’’
Kravtsov, who took shifts on all four lines throughout the game, was dynamic every time he was on the ice. He earned his first NHL point with an assist on the goal by Smith. His pass to the slot deflected off Mika Zibanejad’s skate and went to Smith, who scored his third goal of the season.
That goal came a minute and 53 seconds after Hajek got the Rangers on the board, firing a shot that appeared to deflect twice on the way to the goal and got by Sorokin at 10:23.
Smith, who thought the Rangers "just didn’t bring it’’ in the first period, was encouraged by the fact that they played better in the second and third.
"If we can keep playing this way,’’ he said, "keep getting those points, slide in [to the playoffs], I think we can be a team that can do damage.’