NEW YORK -- With his team trailing 2-0 in the first period, New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano admitted he considered breaking up his top line of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Thomas Vanek.
By the time the game ended, he was glad he didn't.
Vanek scored the go-ahead goal with 4:38 remaining and Tavares had three assists as the Islanders rallied to beat the New York Rangers 5-3 Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Rick Nash scored twice in the first 11:07 of the first period and Chris Kreider also scored for the Rangers (27-22-3). Cam Talbot, who earned an emergency start when Henrik Lundqvist fell ill, stopped 32 shots.
Frans Nielsen, Colin McDonald, Thomas Hickey and Matt Martin also scored for the Islanders (21-24-7), who rallied from a two-goal deficit to win for the League-leading eighth time this season and the second time in as many days. Kevin Poulin stopped 30 shots.
The Islanders trailed 3-1 in the second period before a comeback that was keyed by their top line, which has combined for 18 points in the past five games. But the first line was also on the ice for both of Nash's goals.
"There was a time during the first period, I'll be honest with you, that I was going to probably break that line up. But I wanted to see how they handled it," Capuano said. "They struggled a little bit in the first. But they came around."
The Islanders were 0-for-4 on the power play when the Rangers took a bench minor for too many men and Capuano's top line went to work. Tavares deflected a pass from Nielsen to Vanek, who was alone in front and tapped home his 18th of the season to give the Islanders a 4-3 lead.
"I think it was just a broken play. It was a good tip by Johnny. I wanted to stop it and go around [Talbot]," Vanek said. "Special teams was great for us. It wins and loses you games. Tonight it won us the game."
Vanek's goal completed a comeback that began in the middle period with a perfect passing sequence that led to Hickey's goal. Vanek carried the puck across the Rangers' blue line and found Okposo on the right wing. From a severe angle, Okposo made a perfect pass across the slot to a cutting Hickey on the doorstep at 13:22 to cut the Rangers lead to 3-2.
"That's how we have to play. We talk about it. It's constant motion all the time. Move the puck, move your feet," Capuano said. "Hickey made a great play. He's scored some big goals for us this year. That was another one."
Just over three minutes later, Talbot made one of his better stops of the night as he knocked away Tavares' shot from in close with his glove. But McDonald found the rebound and spun around before firing a shot from the slot that beat Talbot high to the glove side at 16:36 to tie the game 3-3.
Nash almost got his third of the night 86 seconds later after Derek Stepan lobbed a long pass through the air right to Kreider at the Islanders' blue line. On the ensuing odd-man rush, Kreider fed a perfect cross-ice pass to Nash, whose one-timer was stopped by Poulin's skate.
Nash was stopped on the highlight-reel sliding save, but for the second consecutive game he got the Rangers off to a fast start with two first-period goals, the first of which came 62 seconds after the opening faceoff. After fighting off Matt Donovan behind the Islanders' net, Kreider found Nash streaking into the slot untouched. The Canadian Olympian snapped a wrist shot that beat Poulin low to the blocker side to give the home team a 1-0 lead.
He'd get another 10:05 later.
Dan Girardi found Nash breaking through the neutral zone, sending him in alone on Poulin. Nash deked backhand-to-forehand twice before putting the puck past Poulin's outstretched right pad for his team-leading 16th with 8:53 remaining in the period. After scoring seven goals in his first 26 games this season, Nash's second of the night gave him nine in nine games.
"We wanted the two points tonight and we put ourselves in a good position to get them," Nash said. "We didn't get the job done tonight."
The two-goal lead excited the MSG crowd, but the Islanders at no point felt it was reflective of how the game was going.
"I really thought that we were the better team the whole game. Even though they went up 2-0, that was the only two opportunities they had," Tavares said. "We missed some chances and then we got a big goal to get us back into it. I thought we carried the play."
The Islanders captain's blunt assessment didn't get much of an argument from his Rangers counterpart.
"I thought they were controlling most of the game for large amounts," Ryan Callahan said. "We got off to that lead, but then we have to try and grab control of that hockey game. We need to up our intensity, our energy. For whatever reason, we didn't do it."
Tavares earned his first assist when he eluded Girardi behind the Rangers net before threading a perfect pass to Martin in front. Martin beat Talbot in close at 17:22 for his third of the season and first since Nov. 1 to cut the margin to 2-1.
Kreider restored the Rangers' two-goal lead midway through the second when he picked up a loose puck after Derek Stepan's power-play wrister hit the post and scored his 13th.
Nielsen sealed it with an empty-netter in the final seven seconds to wrap up a victory for the Islanders in the first of three games between these teams in a 10-day stretch. They will face each other on Jan. 29 at Yankee Stadium as part of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, and again two nights later at Madison Square Garden.
"It's like a little playoff, almost," Poulin said. "It was a good first game. We need points to go up in the standing. So we have to keep winning."