BY STEVE ZIPAY
If the final two games in the Rangers-Islanders regular-series series---Jan. 29 at Yankee Stadium and two days later back at Madison Square Garden---are anything like Tuesday’s match, fans should be wildly entertained.
During Tuesday’s 5-3 comeback victory by the tenacious Islanders over the Blueshirts, the superstars shone, lesser-light goaltenders made some key stops, and a crowd that braved a blizzard was on the edge of their seats.
Thomas Vanek scored the game-winner on a power play with 4:38 left in regulation as the surging visitors overcame an early 2-0 lead on a pair of Rick Nash goals and snapped the Rangers three-game winning streak.
The Isles, who were also down 3-1, have won two straight against the Rangers and have captured seven of nine overall. It was their ninth road win in the past 11 games and raised their record to 21-24-7 and the possibility of a playoff spot inched closer.
“They played a hungry game, they played a good road game,” said Nash, who has nine goals in the last nine games. “We have to make sure we’re better when we put ourselves in a position like that when we’re going into the third period.” After a crackling two periods, the teams were tied at three entering the final period.
The fourth power play for the Rangers came when Josh Bailey tripped Derick Brassard at 5:54. Goaltender Kevin Poulin, who had never faced the Rangers and made 30 saves, stopped Brad Richards on the only Blueshirts shot on goal as the Rangers vainly tried to force plays into the middle of the alert Isles defense, who blocked passes and shots.
But the Islanders cashed in on their fifth power-play opportunity with 5:35 left when the Rangers, who started Cam Talbot because Henrik Lundqvist was ill, were whistled for too many men---seven---on the ice. John Tavares had his third assist on the deciding goal when he tipped a point shot to Vanek in front who quickly slid the puck past Talbot for his 18th goal. The line of Vanek, Tavares and Kyle Okposo finished with seven points.
“They have some dynamic players,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “They’ve got some players who can make something out of nothing, and obviously, their top line had quite an evening. It was a hard-fought battle by both teams, but we made a couple mistakes at the wrong times, two shifts where we extend our time on the ice, one leads to a goal, the other one leads to too many men on the ice when our guys were changing on the backcheck and they made us pay for it.” Frans Neilsen scored an empty-netter with 6.1 seconds left.
Trailing 3-1 after Chris Kreider’s power play tap-in from the doorstep at 9:34 of the second, the Isles---who seem to raise their level when down by two goals---kept coming and tied the game with goals from two unlikely scorers and Poulin stopped 16 straight shots.
Thomas Hickey’s third of the season came at 13:22 and after Talbot got his body in front of Tavares’ shot, Colin MacDonald spun and shot high past Talbot's glove from the slot at 16:36.
“The whole game, we just didn’t feel totally right,” said Brad Richards. “We were a little behind in our thinking for whatever reason.” That’s because the Isles controlled the puck and the Rangers (27-22-3) did not play as well defensively as they have been, especially in winning six out of seven.
Talbot, with 15 saves, and Nash were the top players in the first period. Nash opened the scoring at 1:10 on a feed from Chris Kreider, who had two assists, but the Islanders dominated the first half of the period, forcing Talbot to make seven saves. The Rangers did kill Michael Del Zotto’s penalty, and then Nash stuck again, beating Poulin on a breakaway at 11:07 for his 16th goal and second two-goal effort in as many games. Dan Carcillo almost made it 3-0, but hit iron with about five minutes to go.
After Poulin stopped Kreider in close, Matt Martin closed the gap to 2-1, beating Talbot off Tavares’ pass at 17:22. At 3-1, however, the Isles kept coming and the Rangers seemed to weaken under pressure.
With two 2-goal leads, said Ryan Callahan, “we needed to up our intensity, our energy.” They didn’t. The Islanders did.