NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers entered their game against the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square on Tuesday with 15 wins in 18 games. Considering such a run, one would think they would have created some separation in the Metropolitan Division.
Not a chance.
Not when their rival on the other side of the East River, the New York Islanders, has won seven of 10 and reeled off at least three wins in a row seven times this season. The Washington Capitals have earned at least one point in eight of their past 10. As long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in the fold, the Rangers know it's difficult to envision the Pittsburgh Penguins going away anytime soon.
That's why it was crucial for the Rangers to overcome a sluggish start and earn a 3-2 overtime win against the Senators, capped by Carl Hagelin's goal at 2:55 of the extra period. It allowed the Rangers to move into a tie with the Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan, one point ahead of the Capitals.
The Rangers enter the All-Star break five points behind the Islanders, although they do have two games in hand. The bitter rivals will face each other at Nassau Coliseum when play resumes next Tuesday.
Four Metropolitan teams are separated by six points. Despite this impressive stretch, the Rangers must continue to scratch and claw if they hope to secure one of the top three spots and, more importantly, home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"That's our reality. It's our reality of our division and our conference, and that's what we've got to deal with, good teams," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "There are no easy games in this league, and you have to prepare yourself game in and game out, and our guys know that. Now they're going to re-energize and get ready for a real good second half."
There's no doubt the Rangers were feeling much better about themselves after the game than had they had a letdown against the Senators, who are fighting to remain relevant in the second half. After impressive back-to-back division wins over the weekend at the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh, it would have been tough to cope with dropping a game they know they should have.
When Hagelin redirected Derek Stepan's feed past Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson in overtime, one could almost hear the Rangers breathe a collective sigh of relief. The break will now be much more enjoyable.
"Even though we gave them one point, that's fine as long as we get two," Hagelin said. "Going into break here, all the other top teams are winning. You can never take a night off, that's for sure. We just want to keep improving and especially get the two points tonight going into break."
It's hardly time to begin scoreboard-watching, but the Rangers have certainly taken notice of just how strong the Metropolitan is this season. The division is currently led by the Islanders, who are three wins shy of matching their total from last season and are in first place at the All-Star break for the first time in 25 years. In Washington, Alex Ovechkin is thriving under new coach Barry Trotz and has already scored 27 goals. The Penguins earned points in four of their first five games in January before losing back-to-back games in regulation to the Islanders and Rangers. Pittsburgh picked up a point in a 3-2 overtime loss at the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.
"It feels like everyone else is winning," said left wing Chris Kreider, who played with an extra gear against the Senators and erased a 2-1 deficit with a goal early in the third period. "You can't drop a game like that, you can't lose a close one. That was huge for us. Every time you look at the scoreboard, it's like people in our division are winning, so you have to keep pace."
Despite a slow start, the Rangers were able to do that Tuesday. When the All-Star break is over, the Islanders will be waiting and will have no intentions of being gracious hosts.
Such is life in the Metropolitan Division this season.
"The teams in our division are winning a lot of games," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. "It's good to find a couple of division wins on the road. We've got a nice little break here to relax, get some good rest and cheer for Rick Nash in Columbus, and then get ready for another big game against the Islanders.
"That's going to be a huge two points. We've got to be focused and be ready, they play really well there. I'm looking forward to it already."