Saturday night's contest between the Rangers and the Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum was easily the most anticipated, hyped, and important regular season game between the two teams in a long time, perhaps dating back to the last time both teams reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the same season, back in 2006-07.
And this one did not disappoint in the least, as the Rangers and Islanders played 63 minutes 11 seconds of scoreless hockey before Dan Girardi beat Evgeni Nabokov off the rush 3:11 into overtime lifting the visitiors to a simply scintillating 1-0 victory.
Derick Brassard, who called his first taste of the Rangers-Islanders rivalry "unreal" after the game, feathered a perfect backhanded pass to Girardi at the bottom of the right circle after the Rangers defenseman left the Isles' Josh Bailey behind. Girardi then quickly snapped a shot high into the far corner of the net for his second goal of the season---and first ever overtime winner---setting off a wild Rangers celebration behind the Islanders net.
Henrik Lundqvist was sensational between the pipes for the Rangers, finishing with 29 saves for his first shutout of the season. It was also Lundqvist's 44th career shutout and fifth all-time against the Islanders. Nabokov was solid, as well---though not tested nearly as often, stopping 19 of 20 Ranger shots.
With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Rangers now sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points, two better than the Winnipeg Jets to go along with owning a game in hand on Winnipeg. The Rangers are now one point behind the seventh place Islanders, who gained that extra point by losing in overtime to the Rangers on Saturday. The Blueshirts also own a game in hand on the Isles.
With the season schedule winding down and both teams fighting for their playoff lives, the Rangers and Islanders played with intense passion right from the first drop of the puck on Saturday. And the sold-out crowd at the Nassau Coliseum---featuring boisterous fans for both teams---added to the rollicking playoff-like atmosphere which surrounded this contest.
Relentless back-and-forth action, terrific goaltending by Lundqvist, and several shots which hit iron highlighted the scoreless first two periods of play on Saturday night. The Islanders held a 22-15 shots advantage through 40 minutes of play, and had the better of the scoring chances with Lundqvist the clear difference maker.
At the 15:35 mark of the first period Lundqvist made a save on Thomas Hickey's left wing shot through traffic, then followed it up with a highlight-reel glove stop on Matt Moulson's rebound rocket from the slot---two of his ten saves in the opening stanza.
In the second period Lundqvist denied all 12 shots which came his way, including a sharp pair on deflections off the sticks of Moulson, at 8:40, and Brad Boyes, at 19:30. Lundqvist also stared down a wide-open Kyle Okposo with two minutes to play in the second period, making a big-time save with the Rangers scrambling in their own end. After the puck deflected off Lundqvist, it struck the post behind the Rangers netminder---the second time late in the second period in which the surging Islanders caught iron. A minute earlier it was Casey Cizikas who slid the puck past a diving Lundqvist on left wing only to be beaten by the far post.
In the third period the Islanders struck more iron when Colin McDonald's right wing shot hit the spot where the crossbar meets the post just 1:42 into the final period of play.
The Rangers also caught some tough puck luck because of iron earlier in the middle stanza. Derek Stepan perfectly deflected Ryan Callahan's power play pass from right wing while driving to the net, and the puck went between Nabokov's pads only to catch the far post at the 5:32 mark.
Nabokov made eight saves in the first period and seven more in the second. His best save came 2:40 into the middle stanza when he made a lunging pad save as Darroll Powe dove for a rebound and flipped the puck towards the far side of the cage while laying at the top of the crease.
Powe delivered one of the more thunderous hits of what was a very hard-hitting game on Saturday, plastering Isles captain Mark Streit into the back wall late in the first period. Matt Martin of the Islanders was credited with five hits in the first period alone as both teams played physically, and the referees let the players play with only three power plays handed out over the first 40 minutes.
The Rangers eventually finished the game 0-for-4 on the power play, including a failed chance which bridged the third period and start of overtime. However the Rangers also killed off both Islander power plays, including a hooking call against Steve Eminger midway through the third period.
After a pair of off days, the Rangers return to action Tuesday night in Philadelphia when they face the Flyers.