On Dec. 7, both the Islanders and Penguins were tied atop the Metro Division with 38 points. The Rangers were 12 points behind them.
But Thursday night, after their fourth straight win, a 4-3 comeback victory over the Arizona Coyotes, the Rangers caught their longtime Long Island rivals, who were idle. Both teams have 82 points and the Rangers have two games in hand.
Lee Stempniak scored his second goal with 2:14 left, backhanding his own rebound over Mike Smith's pad, and the Rangers killed a six-on-four with Smith pulled after a Martin St. Louis penalty with 1:21 left.
"In the last handful of games, I've tried to hang onto the puck a little bit more," Stempniak said. "Sometimes I'm a little eager to pass the puck. "
Captain Ryan McDonagh downplayed the Rangers catching the Islanders. "There's pride obviously, and you want to do well in your division," he said. "But we can't feel too good about ourselves just because we're there. We've got things to fine-tune because it gets tough down the road."
The Coyotes, a team poised to deal several players before Monday's trade deadline, put up a tremendous fight before losing their eighth straight.
After a flat first period, which ended with two late power-play goals by Sam Gagner, the Rangers trailed 3-1. But Stempniak tipped in John Moore's point shot at 5:33 of the second and the Rangers killed a four-minute high-sticking penalty to Kevin Klein at 10:22, allowing no shots on Talbot, who finished with 37 saves.
Before killing off that penalty, the Rangers (38-16-6) were fortunate as the Coyotes twice came close to taking a 4-2 lead, at 7:47 when Michael Stone's shot from the right point beat Talbot but clanged off the far post, and then at 9:40, when Lucas Lessio broke in, deked Talbot, and his shot bounced off the left post, slid along the goal line and kissed the right post, as Talbot covered it with his pad.
In another critical segment, a high-stick by Derick Brassard during a Rangers' power play wasn't called, although defenseman Andrew Campbell was bleeding from the mouth and needed repairs on the bench.
After the faceoff in the Rangers' zone, Chris Kreider blew past defenseman Connor Murphy down the left side to the net. Smith stopped the first shot, but Kreider swiped at the follow and Smith could only get a piece with his glove with 11.5 seconds left in the second for the 3-3 tie. It was Kreider's second power-play goal of the game and Smith angrily smashed his stick against the post; Coyotes coach Dave Tippett was furious at the officials.
With the score tied at 1, Gagner scored twice late in the first period. His first came on a 58-second five-on-three, after Klein fired a long clearing pass over the boards at 17:23, with St. Louis already in the box for tripping Shane Doan.
Gagner beat Talbot high glove side from a sharp angle to the goalie's right with 2:06 left, then on the five-on-four, spun onto a loose puck and banked a shot in with 39.2 seconds remaining.
In what has become a trend for the Rangers recently, Talbot allowed a first-minute goal for the third time since he took over for injured No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Mark Arcobello did the damage this time when he came off the bench, took a pass in the slot from David Moss, and snapped in a shot 41 seconds in.
But the Rangers had numerous quality chances afterward.