This was the best game the Rangers have played all week, which made it the toughest loss of all to swallow.
Josh Bailey scored the go-ahead goal with 1:26 to play on the Islanders' first and only shot of the third period, sending the Rangers to a painstaking 4-3 loss to their crosstown rivals on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Trailing by a goal to start the third, the Rangers played one of their more dominant periods of the season, outshooting the Islanders 17-1 in the frame and winning battles all over the ice surface - and drawing even on the scoreboard on Jesper Fast's seventh goal of the season with under 12 minutes to play. But with time winding down, Cal Clutterbuck led a rush down the right wing and stayed wide with the puck, then Bailey got free of Neal Pionk in front and Clutterbuck put a pass onto his tape.
"We've had heartbreaking losses, but that's right up there. Might be at the top of the list," David Quinn said. "Because I was really proud of the way we played - not just in the third period. Maybe we didn't look great in the first two, but we battled through some things. Then to come out the way we did in the third period and to play with the pace and the energy that we did, says an awful lot about our character.
"But character's not getting us wins right now."
Fast and linemate Ryan Strome each scored around a second-period goal from Kevin Shattenkirk, but the Rangers' losing streak reached a season-long five games, with a rematch with the Islanders up next on Saturday afternoon at Barclays Center. They will hope Kevin Hayes might be ready for that one; the center skated with his teammates in a no-contact jersey on Thursday morning but sat out his fourth straight game with an upper-body injury in the evening.
Robin Lehner made 16 of his 27 saves in the third period to stretch his career-best winning streak to eight games, and the Islanders' record to 10-2-0 in their last 12, while the Rangers lost for only the third time in regulation on home ice since late October (9-3-5). Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee scored for the Isles before Bailey's winner - the goals by Barzal and Lee each coming right on the heels of Ranger goals over the first two periods.
Video: NYI@NYR: Fast swats home deflected puck
The only one Lehner didn't get in the third came from Fast, with 11:20 to play, and it would have made a cricket batsman proud. Pionk's initial shot from the point hit Scott Mayfield's backside on its way in and popped high into the air. Just as it bounced above the crease, Fast, dueling with the stick of Devon Toews, took a swinging chop at it and bounced it past Lehner for a tie game.
"That could have been something good, could have meant something," Fast said. "But right now we got zero points and that's all that matters."
"It's a tough one," Henrik Lundqvist said. "We played really well. We put ourselves in a really good spot to win the game. It's a tough one."
The Rangers, coming off a three-game road trip out West and going from Christmas to the All-Star break without two days in between games, will take an off-day on Friday to prepare for a weekend back-to-back that begins on Saturday in Brooklyn. Fast called that "the only good thing right now, we play them again next game," while Quinn warned his Rangers not to bring too much of this with them over the East River.
"We've got to work hard with the mental aspect of this to move past this tonight - we cannot let this get in the way of our performance on Saturday," the coach said. "You can't let them win two games tonight."
The opener of this home-and-home got off to a snarly, and sort of unusual, start, when the Islanders deployed their fourth line to start and the Rangers countered with theirs - Matt Martin immediately changed, and on came Ross Johnston, who once again went after Cody McLeod. The last time that happened, at this same rink on Nov. 21, McLeod reluctantly dropped his gloves in a 3-0 game and wound up with a fractured hand that cost him five weeks.
Video: NYI@NYR: Strome opens the scoring on the power play
This time, when McLeod declined the offer to fight, it was Johnston who wound up with a minor for unsportsmanlike conduct just 17 seconds into the game - and it was Strome who unwrapped the present just 1:38 in, lurking on the left to finish off a sharp passing play from Jimmy Vesey and Filip Chytil, Strome's third goal in five games and the first in his career against the team that chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft.
But Barzal answered right back, just 53 seconds later, catching the Rangers in a change and bursting down the right wing for a breakaway goal. Eberle settled a rolling puck from Lee to score on a power play at 8:51 for the Isles' first lead.
Video: NYI@NYR: Shattenkirk picks the corner through traffic
Following another strong shift from the Chytil-Strome-Fast line to start the second period, Shattenkirk tied the score at 1:11 when he smacked one at the right circle through heavy traffic and into the top corner behind Lehner. But the visitors needed just 1:57 to respond to that: After Marc Staal was deemed to have held Barzal as he drove a puck to the net, the Isles' power play peppered Lundqvist and kept the Rangers' hemmed into their end for entire 1:29 that it lasted, ending in Nick Leddy's blast from straightaway being tipped home by Lee.
"Throughout the game they scored some goals that hurt us - we got going and then right away they got on the power play and scored," Lundqvist said. "And then the killer goal there in the end."
"Last game against Vegas I think we worked really hard, and I think we played really well today, especially in the third period. It's just frustrating to lost the way we did tonight," Fast said. "Give up one shot in the third period - it's hard losing points that way."