Six points separated the Rangers and Islanders in the tight Eastern Conference wild-card standings coming into Tuesday.
By the end of the night, after the season’s final chapter of the rivalry, the Rangers had cut it down to five, in most dramatic fashion.
The post-trade-deadline playoff race is officially on.
The Rangers entered an electric environment at the Coliseum and survived with a fourth straight win, 4-3, after Mika Zibanejad’s overtime strike.
“I don’t know how many people here thought we’d be in this position. We are,” coach Davd Quinn said. “Nobody inside the walls of that locker room is surprised and neither is the staff.
“One of the things I thought is we really had it between the ears tonight — and in between the legs.”
A day after the trade deadline passed — with the Rangers (34-24-4) holding on to Chris Kreider and signing him long term, trading Brady Skjei to Carolina and dealing with a car crash that involved Igor Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich — they got back to business and continued to surge up the standings behind the Islanders (35-20-7). The Rangers won for the 11th time in their past 14 games, now with 20 games left.
The Rangers also moved within four points of the Blue Jackets, with three games in hand, for the second wild-card and final playoff spot, all thanks to Zibanejad’s winner. It was set up by Artemi Panarin, who raced into the zone with the puck, taking all three Islanders with him toward the boards before finding Zibanejad all alone to end it.
“I thought that was my opportunity to do something and luckily it went in,” Zibanejad said.
Brock Nelson had forced overtime when he scored with 17.9 seconds left in regulation, sending the Coliseum into a frenzy. The Islanders had an extra attacker after pulling goalie Semyon Varlamov with under two minutes to go.
It ended up being only a minor blemish for Alexandar Georgiev, who stepped in for the injured Shesterkin (rib fracture) and made 42 saves in the win. The Islanders had come out buzzing to start the night but Georgiev held down the fort early and often.
The Rangers, who won an eighth consecutive road game for the first time in franchise history, took a 2-1 lead into the third period with goals from Panarin and Greg McKegg. They extended it to 3-1 at 9:34, when Brett Howden tipped in a blast from Brendan Smith, who took Skjei’s spot on the blue line.
The Islanders thought they had made it 3-2 at 12:16, but their goal was immediately waved off for goalie interference on Anders Lee. Barry Trotz challenged the call but it stood after review, though the Islanders connected for a goal that counted minutes later on a power-play finish from Jordan Eberle.
Even after Nelson forced overtime, the Rangers found an answer again as they continued to keep their playoff dreams alive in the aftermath of the trade deadline — a goal they couldn’t hang their hats on the last two seasons at this time of year.
“It means a lot,” Zibanejad said. “The last couple years, we’ve been basically out with a month and a half or whatever [left]. Now, it’s important games and tight games. I’m proud of everyone, from the older guys to the young guys, how we’re battling. I feel like we understand what we have to do in these important games when it comes down to crunch time and the tight games we’re having right now. We’ve been finding a way to do it.”