UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- If you didn't think at the beginning that there was something much more to Thursday night's game than just your garden variety regular-season match, then the sights and sounds of the ending left no doubt: The way that all five Rangers on the ice were leaping for joy once Chris Kreider punched home a power-play goal in the game's final half-minute, the way they went piling on top of one another in one corner of Nassau Coliseum, the deafening roar made by just half the fans in the rink, and the sight of the other half slinking toward the exits.
"It felt like a playoff game," Kreider said afterward.
This is how it was over so many years of Rangers-Islanders games at Nassau Coliseum, where the sheer volume of Blueshirts fans turns this tiny rink into a neutral site. And that is how it was in the Rangers' return here after this bitter old rivalry had taken a five-year hiatus from Long Island, on a night in which everyone, players and fans alike, did their part to make up for the lost time.
Ultimately it was Kreider, one of the few players who had been a part of this rivalry in this rink before, who put the final stamp on the night, slamming in the rebound of Mika Zibanejad's shot with 24.6 seconds remaining to lift the Rangers to a scintillating 3-2 victory over the Islanders. It was the second of three meetings in the rivals' three-game midseason mini-series, and the Rangers have taken the first two -- different wins in different rinks in completely different ways.
"Just a real gutsy effort by our guys," David Quinn said. "To come in here against a team that's had the success they've had -- they test your mettle, they test your mental toughness, they test your physical toughness. And to come in here and get two points certainly is a great sign for our growth."
After routing the Islanders on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Quinn's Rangers on this night leaned heavily early on Alexandar Georgiev -- who finished with 38 saves to pile onto the complex he seems to have given the Isles -- and heavily late on a penalty kill that finished 5-for-5, and which Quinn, more than once afterward, described as "immense."
Really, special teams were all Rangers on this night: Zibanejad had a goal and an assist on power plays, and Tony DeAngelo scored stepping out of the penalty box following a massive third-period kill by four exhausted teammates, before Artemi Panarin and Zibanejad set up Kreider's power-play put-back to break the deadlock.
It all added up to the Rangers' fourth victory in the last five games -- and, incidentally, their sixth win in their last seven visits to Nassau Coliseum, where they hadn't played since March of 2015.
"I think as the season has gone on we're starting to do a lot of little things that have given us opportunities to win games, and be in games," said Kreider, whose winning goal was his ninth in 14 games. "We've had a stretch here where we've done a better job of that. There's still a long way to go."
Josh Bailey scored late in the first period for the Isles, and Anthony Beauvillier tied the score in the third period with an excuse-me goal following a dump-in, but it wasn't enough for the Islanders to avoid their sixth loss in their last eight home games. Each team will play other opponents -- the Isles have two games, while the Rangers face the Blue Jackets on Sunday at the Garden -- before reconvening Tuesday on Broadway to complete this three-games-in-nine-days rivalry set.
Whereas Monday's opener was all Rangers, Thursday's rematch threatened to go the other way early on, if not for Georgiev, who had entered the game with a career 1.21 GAA and .957 save percentage against the Islanders, and who kept this game a contest with 21 saves over the opening 20 minutes. "We were expecting them to come harder," Georgiev said of the Isles. "It's their home arena, and they wanted to play a better first period."
The Rangers were 50.3 seconds from escaping that first with no score, until Bailey drove one past Georgiev on the Islanders' 20th shot of the frame. But the damage was minimal enough, and it gave the Rangers a chance to take a breath.
"I think we were kind of curious to see what this was going to be all about," Quinn said of his young team playing this rivalry game back at the Coliseum. "Once we get out of the first period down 1-nothing, I thought we said, 'Oh, okay, this is just another hockey game.' And we did a really good job of turning the tide."
After the intermission, the Rangers had the first 11 shots of the middle frame, and Georgiev, after facing 22 pucks in the first, didn't see one until more than 14 minutes had been played in the second -- "a rollercoaster," he called that -- and not before Zibanejad had tied the game on a replay-aided goal, when cameras showed his shot with 7:14 to play had bounced over the line before Ryan Pulock's glove could sweep it clear. ("We knew it was a goal," Quinn said.)
DeAngelo emerged from the box to give the Rangers their first lead 4:16 into the third, looking off Jesper Fast -- who had been killing DeAngelo's penalty for over a minute and a half and was racing on fumes to join him for a 2-on-1 -- and beating Semyon Varlamov (25 saves) with a wrister. Beauvillier's mishandle off his own skate squeaked through Georgiev to tie it with 7:20 to play, but with ex-Ranger Derick Brassard off for crosschecking Fast with under a minute remaining, Panarin took care of the zone entry, then fed Zibanejad in the slot for a one-timer; Kreider was in the perfect spot to clean it up.
It was almost a wonder Kreider was even out on that power play to begin with: Only a minute earlier he was on the receiving end of a knee-on-knee from Johnny Boychuk as he was trying to exit the Rangers' zone -- a hit that had the visitors' bench incensed.
"I just have to stand in front on the power play, so I'm lucky it wasn't 5-on-5," Kreider was able to joke afterward. "It was a hard-hitting game, and not a lot of time and space, guys running into each other. Like I said, it felt like a playoff game."
It is bound to have that feel again when the rivals meet once again back at the Garden on Tuesday -- although there is important business before that, in the form of the Blue Jackets and their visit to Broadway on Sunday night. "We need to show up in every game with the same type of passion and urgency that we had tonight," Quinn said afterward -- although in the next breath the Head Coach allowed that, yes, there was something more to Thursday's game.
"Obviously when it's the Islanders and Rangers in Nassau Coliseum," he said, "that adds a little bit of flavor."