The New York Islanders knew what was at stake as they entered their locker room during the second intermission at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night. The Isles trailed the Rangers 2-1 in a game they had to win. The Toronto Maple Leafs had already beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets which meant the Isles were another two points behind the Leafs in the race for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Interim head coach Doug Weight knew his club needed motivation. While he wouldn’t reveal what was said between periods, he pointed to his shirt collar and admitted he “busted a button” while speaking emotionally to his players. before they took the ice for the final 20 minutes of the game.
“We worked and battled,” Weight said. “We played with good pace, we played with big-time effort and Tommy [Greiss] was great early and we got some big goals. It was a huge win.”
The Islanders responded with a gutsy third-period performance that wasn’t pretty but was just good enough to earn a 3-2 victory over the Rangers and keep the team’s playoff hopes alive. Nikolay Kulemin and Andrew Ladd scored on the power play while Thomas Greiss made 11 of his 34 saves in the final stanza to give the Isles the win.
“We came from behind and got a couple of big goals in the third,” captain John Tavares said. “The power play really came through. We found a way, that’s all that matters at this time of the year.”
Kulemin’s goal came at 5:01 while Kevin Hayes was in the penalty box for slashing. A pass by Joshua Ho-Sang deflected off the skates of Anthony Beauvillier and then off Kulemin’s skates and got behind Rangers goalie Antti Raanta.
Ladd’s game-winner came at 12:38 with ex-Islander Michael Grabner in the box for delay of game. Ladd took a pass from Anders Lee and beat Raanta to the far post. It was Ladd’s 20th goal of the season and his 16th since December 23rd.
After the Isles went ahead, the Rangers controlled the tempo of the game and spent extended periods of time in the Isles zone, peppering Greiss with shot after shot. The Isles starter stood tall and preserved the one-goal victory for his club.
Neither team played particularly well in a choppy first period that lacked flow. Weight indicated that his team turned the puck over too often and gave the Rangers the vast majority of their scoring chances.
The Rangers broke on top with a power play tally just 2:46 into the second period. Mats Zuccarello had an easy tap in off a centering pass by Mika Zibanejad to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Anders Lee scored his 27th goal of the year just 54 seconds later to disrupt the Rangers momentum and demonstrate that the Islanders weren’t about to go away without a battle. Lee beat defenseman Brady Skjei to the far post and was able to score the goal on the rebound of a shot by Beauvillier.
The game got physical just after Lee’s goal as Tanner Glass won a long tussle with rookie defenseman Scott Mayfield of the Islanders. Each player received a five-minute fighting major.
The Rangers were clearly the better team in the second period and took a 2-1 lead on a highlight reel goal by Rick Nash. The Rangers power forward split the Isles defense and managed to put the puck in off Greiss’ glove at 6:36. It was Nash’s 20th goal of the season.
Greiss’ play was a big reason the Isles were still within one goal after 40 minutes. He made 12 saves in the middle stanza, many of them difficult. The Rangers seemed to often try to make one pass too many on several plays which also prevented them from converting several quality scoring chances.
In the end, while they didn’t play an outstanding game, the Islanders found a way to earn two very necessary points and to stay in the playoff hunt. With the Maple Leafs win, they passed the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. The Islanders now trail Boston by two points in the race for the final playoff spot, but the Isles have one game in hand on the Bruins.
“This is playoff hockey for us,” forward Anders Lee said. “There’s no looking back. We can’t take any game for granted and we’ve got to get two points almost every night. The teams in front of us are winning as well and that’s what makes a game like tonight so important.”
The Islanders return to action Friday night when they visit the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
The Islanders scratched Dennis Seidenberg, Alan Quine, Shane Prince and Stephen Gionta while Johnny Boychuk was still unavailable due to injury. Boychuk is making progress but is still several days from returning to the lineup.
Forward Ryan Strome left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury and did not return. After the game, Weight indicated Strome would be unavailable this weekend and most likely beyond although he did not have a detailed update of Strome’s condition.
The Islanders won the season series from the Rangers 3-1-0 and have now won seven of the last eight games between the two rivals.