Make that a season sweep and a leg up in the Metropolitan Division.
Behind superb goaltending from Thomas Greiss, who made 36 saves, and sparked by three second-period goals in 6:17 — from Shane Prince, Casey Cizikas and Frans Neilsen — the Islanders beat the Rangers, 4-1, Thursday night for the fourth time this season, tied their crosstown rivals in points, and pulled into third place in the division standings because they have a game in hand.
The third-place finisher will face the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, who wrapped up second place and home-ice advantage in the Metro with a 4-3 overtime win Thursday night, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs next week.
The team in fourth — currently the Rangers — will claim the first wild-card and play the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers in the first round.
At 45-27-9 and 99 points, the Blueshirts have one game remaining, hosting the Red Wings on Saturday afternoon. The Islanders (45-28-9, 99) play their final two in Brooklyn, against Buffalo and Philadelphia. At this point, the first tiebreaker belongs to the Rangers, with 42 wins in regulation and overtime; the Islanders have 40. Head-to-head wins is the second.
Antti Raanta relieved Henrik Lundqvist in the third and Kevin Klein’s goal through a screen with 2:48 left in the third allowed the Rangers to avoid their fifth shutout of the season. But John Tavares’ empty-netter, his 32nd goal, with 32 seconds left, sealed it.
“You want to get ready for a good game, of course, but in the back of your head, you start focusing on next week and what’s ahead, no question about it,” said Lundqvist, who made 13 saves. “You know you’re in [the playoffs], but at the same time, for some reason this year, they’ve been better. You have to give it to them, they’ve been playing well, they’re really good in the middle of the ice, creating openings, that’s why they’re a good team.”
The Rangers outshot the Islanders 28-16 after 40 minutes, but Greiss was sharp. “We controlled the puck the first two periods and had a lot of great looks,” said Marc Staal. “It’s disappointing we weren’t able to get a couple when we had the momentum. They’re a team that you don’t have to give them very much and they can hurt you.”
The first wound came when Prince spun loose in front and got his stick on Marek Zidlicky’s long shot, which bounced off Dan Boyle’s leg and past Lundqvist at 13:28 for a 1-0 lead. Three Rangers then were caught watching Prince, who cut to the left side of the net and passed in front to the untouched Cizikas and it was 2-0, with 1:22 left. With Keith Yandle in the box for a questionable tripping, Nielsen buried a beautiful pass from Tavares at 19:26 for the three-goal lead.
“The first goal they get a bounce off Boyler, their second is a misread and they get a power-play goal on a great play by a great play,” said Derek Stepan. “In the third, we’ve got to learn to play against a trap like that.”