NEW YORK -- With a showdown for supremacy in the Eastern Conference 24 hours away, the New York Rangers could have looked past the cellar-dwelling Islanders on Thursday night.
Instead, the Rangers kept right on rolling.
Marian Gaborik moved into a tie for the League lead in goals with his 20th of the season, and backup goaltender Martin Biron was solid again as the Rangers defeated the Islanders 4-2 at Madison Square Garden.
In a preview of the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic to be played on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park, the Rangers will host the Philadelphia Flyers back here Friday night. The Flyers will enter the game in first place in the East with 46; the Rangers are two points back of their Atlantic Division rivals and can head into the two-day holiday break in first place in the conference with a win and a loss by the Boston Bruins on Friday night.
But all that mattered Thursday was the Islanders.
"We didn't talk about that," said defenseman Dan Girardi about the Rangers potentially going into the break atop the East. "We just talked about playing a three-game set here before Christmas. Obviously, we're two games into it and we have two wins."
The Rangers have won three straight and five of seven. The Islanders entered the game winners of two straight.
Brandon Dubinsky opened the scoring for the Rangers with his second goal of the season, a pretty end-to-end-rush that was completed with a laser to the stick side of Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. It was a rare sight from the 25-year-old, who has struggled to find the back of the net after signing a four-year contract during the summer following a 24-goal 2010-11 season.
"It's relief," Dubinsky said of the all-too-rare goal. "You feel great. You don't want to get too high here. It was 15 games before I scored my first and another 15 before I scored my second. For me, it's about playing the right way and moving my feet and it's about doing all the little things right that's going to lead to my success offensively."
The Islanders, who are in 14th place in the East with 28 points, weren't patsies on this night.
Ex-Rangers P.A. Parenteau drew the Isles into a 1-1 tie 18 seconds into the second period with a power-play goal. He was left unmolested in front of Biron and was able to tip a point shot by Mark Streit and stash home his rebound before the Rangers defense could get to him.
A little more than seven minutes later, Gaborik made it 2-1 and moved into a tie for the NHL goals lead with Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Toronto's Phil Kessel. The goal was the result of a great play off an offensive zone faceoff that was won by Artem Anisimov, who pushed the puck forward, tracked it down, and fed Gaborik in front for the easy goal -- Gaborik beat Isles forward Michael Grabner to the crease.
"They're coming from in front of the net. That's where goals are scored," said Gaborik of his five-goal surge in the past three games. "The puck seems to follow me a little bit. It's a lot about confidence as well. My linemates (Derek Stepan and Anisimov) there, we're clicking together. We just need to keep it going."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano blamed the coaching staff for the goal.
"That’s something as coaches that we take pride in and something as coaches we show them before the game," Capuano said. "It was exactly the same two guys (Anisimov and Gaborik) that set up against us last time and we knew it could have been coming. That was a big goal there."
Before Michael Del Zotto scored what turned out to be the winner on a scorching slap shot from the left circle with 3:35 left in the second period, he made perhaps the biggest save of the game.
With the score tied at 1-1, Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic fired a shot that Biron stopped, but the rebound trickled to the stick of forward Matt Martin. Biron couldn't get to Martin's shot, but Del Zotto was able to slide along the goal line and knock the puck out of harm's way.
About 10 minutes later, Del Zotto hammered a rolling puck through Nabokov's legs to put the Rangers ahead 3-1.
"It takes plays like that to win games," Girardi said. "Especially getting to the halfway point of the year when we're fighting for tops in the conference. It takes everyone to make desperation plays like that."
Del Zotto's goal came at even strength. He was plus-2 on the night and is plus-20 on the season, tied for fifth-best in the League and second among defensemen. The 21-year-old has been a rock this season as Marc Staal (concussion), Michael Sauer (concussion), Steve Eminger (shoulder) and Jeff Woywitka (foot) have all been out of the lineup recently.
"Every day I've felt more comfortable and gotten more confident," Del Zotto said. "We've had some injuries along the way at the start here and the coaching staff has rewarded me with some ice time. I think when they show that confidence in you, it helps out in your own mind. I'm not satisfied with where I'm at right now. I have to keep going."
The Islanders took advantage of another power play in the third period. Matt Moulson slammed home a rebound with 11:31 left in regulation to cut the lead to 3-2 and give Streit his second assist of the game. Kyle Okposo came close to tying it when the Rangers relaxed thinking there would be an icing call late in the period, but John Mitchell's empty-netter with 1:33 remaining iced the contest.
Biron improved to 7-1-0 in 8 starts with a 1.84 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. He's on pace to make the most starts by a Rangers backup since Henrik Lundqvist took over the starting job full time in 2006-07. He's also 21-4-1 lifetime against the Islanders, for whom he played in 2008-09 before signing with the Rangers.
"Obviously you feel a sense of pride just producing for the team and being part of a great tandem with Hank," Biron said. "The pride right there to know that I'm giving him something and he's responding the other way. It's great for this team to see that we're in the top defensively and as goalies, that's an accomplishment."
The Islanders, who finished 2-1-0 on their three-game trip, will have to be a lot less sloppy when they host Toronto on Friday in their final game before the break. They'll get a chance to avenge this loss when they're back at the Garden on Monday.
"We did some things well, but it’s a rivalry game, it’s a huge game," Parenteau said. "We can’t turn the puck over as much as we did today. That’s probably why we lost this game today."
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