NEW YORK -- The New York Islanders squashed any debate over who is the better team in New York at this point in the season with an emphatic win Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
The Islanders scored three unanswered goals in the second period and defeated the New York Rangers 3-0 to keep a one-point lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Anders Lee , Nikolay Kulemin and Frans Nielsen provided the offense. Nielsen's goal was shorthanded and it came in the final minute of the second period. Jaroslav Halak made 27 saves for his 23rd win and fourth shutout of the season.
The Islanders (29-13-1) also defeated the Rangers 6-3 at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 14.
The victory, combined with the Tampa Bay Lightning's 4-3 road loss to the Boston Bruins, moved the Islanders into first place in the Eastern Conference.
"It's a big win," Islanders captain John Tavares said. "Certainly it's going to make a lot of people on Long Island happy [Wednesday] morning. We're excited about beating them. It's a lot of fun. The rivalry has been great and you enjoy it. Obviously they've been playing well and the top of our division is real tight, so just a big game."
Until Tuesday, the Rangers (24-12-4) were the hottest team in the NHL; they had a five-game winning streak, including a three-game sweep in California last week, and a 13-1-0 record since Dec. 8. Henrik Lundqvist was 11-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in his 12 starts before playing the Islanders. Rick Nash had nine goals in 14 games.
All the positivity they took into Tuesday seemed to be wiped away after the second period.
Lundqvist was pulled after making 29 saves on 32 shots, center Derek Stepan was unable to return to the game for the third period because of an upper-body injury and the Rangers as a whole were getting dominated for the first time in a long time.
"We were the slower team, which we haven't been in this last stretch," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. "We know what makes us successful and we just weren't doing it tonight. They were definitely making us look pretty slow out there."
As a result, the attention, at least in New York, has to turn to the once-again red-hot Islanders, who have won at least three in a row for the seventh time this season.
The Islanders finished a season-high seven-game road trip with 10 of a possible 14 points and improved to 10-3-1 in their past 14 games. They have outshot their opponent in each of those 14 games, including 44-27 on Tuesday.
"If you're going to look at pure mathematics, if you shoot the puck more you're going to score more goals," Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "I know that sounds childish to say, but it's probably going to work out. For us that's obviously part of our game plan."
It didn't seem to be in the first period. The Islanders were sloppy in their own end, but lucky because the Rangers had three shots go off the post, including back-to-back shots by Nash and Derick Brassard at 16:31 and 16:32.
The Islanders cleaned up their game in the intermission and clearly had a shoot-first mentality at the start of the second period. It allowed them to wear down the Rangers early in the period.
The Islanders had six shots on goal through the first three-plus minutes. Their pressure forced the Rangers to use their timeout at 3:22. The Islanders had a goal waved off at 4:19 because of goalie interference, but they continued to pour on relentless pressure in the Rangers' end.
Eventually, the Islanders broke through when Lee scored from the slot at 8:49 with a backhanded shot through Lundqvist's five-hole.
"I think it was just being a little bit more sure of ourselves, no hesitation," Tavares said. "We went out in the second and you could see us just getting our game going and starting to wear them down, making them have to defend. Eventually we got rewarded."
The Islanders had a 28-15 edge in shots on goal and a 47-34 advantage in total shot attempts by 15:31 of the second period. Their one-goal lead grew when Kulemin took advantage of a turnover in the defensive zone by the Rangers to score his eighth goal of the season at 16:31.
"We couldn't get out of our own end," Nash said. "When we did get it out we couldn't get it deep in the neutral zone. We fed right into their game plan."
Nielsen's shorthanded goal at 19:19 was the dagger.
Stepan, playing his first shift in more than 11 minutes, turned the puck over to Nielsen, who used his speed while carrying the puck to create a 2-on-1 with Kulemin. Nielsen kept the puck and sent a wrist shot from the right circle through Lundqvist to make it 3-0.
That was the last shot Lundqvist saw. Cam Talbot played the third period and made 12 saves. It was also the last shift Stepan played. He is day-to-day, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said.
"I think we can't just expect to go and find a way to win," McDonagh said. "Every guy in the room that's playing needs to be playing up to their full speed and potential. We have a lot of wins here and it's coming in different ways, but at the same time we can't forget how hard we work for those wins. I think tonight we just didn't work for it enough."
The Rangers have a chance to rebound Thursday, when they start a set of three road games in four days against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.
The Islanders have a set of three in four starting Friday at home against the Penguins in a game that will be for first place in the division.
The Rangers and Islanders will play for a third time this season on Jan. 27 at Nassau Coliseum, the first game back after the All-Star break for each team. At least for now there is no debate on which team will be the favorite in that game.
"It's about getting the two points," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "To play a team that is playing so well, and for them to come off the trip they came off, it gives the guys confidence that they can play against veteran teams, good hockey teams."