UNIONDALE, N.Y.- As far as New York Rangers coach John Tortorella is concerned, only one thing can create a rivalry between the Rangers and the New York Islanders - and it's not geography.
"I don't think it's a rivalry," Tortorella said. "I think we need a good, old-fashioned playoff series. I think that's when we create rivalries."
But even a noted contrarian such as Tortorella would have to agree that any future playoff games between the Rangers and Islanders will have a hard time living up to the quality and atmosphere of Saturday night, when Dan Girardi's goal with 1:49 left in overtime lifted the Rangers to a 1-0 win over the Islanders in front of an electrified sellout bipartisan crowd of 16,170 at Nassau Coliseum.
The biggest regular-season game between the longtime rivals since 1993 more than lived up to its advance billing and appeared headed for a shootout before Girardi's wrister from the right side beat Evgeni Nabokov.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 29 saves in a sterling shutout, bolted from his net and joined his teammates in a wild celebration behind the Islanders' goal.
"It was a long skate," Lundqvist said with a laugh, "but it was worth it. It's always fun to end the game like that, where you feel like you've been playing well [and] guys worked so hard to try to get the win."
Girardi's goal capped the third straight overtime game between the rivals this season - the Islanders won, 4-3, in the shootout at Madison Square Garden Feb. 14, before the Rangers eked out a 2-1 win at the Coliseum on March 7 - and provided the only offense on an evening that grew increasingly heated and desperate as Nabokov and Lundqvist outdid one another and traded spectacular saves.
Lundqvist allowed two goals or fewer for the seventh time in his last nine starts and recorded his first shutout since Feb. 27, 2012. Nabokov (19 saves) allowed two goals or fewer for the eighth time in his last nine starts.
"Two teams, big rivals, this late in the season, battling for a playoff spot you know you're going to get the crowd into it, the players are into it," Rangers winger Ryan Callahan said. "That's as close to a playoff game as you get in the regular season."
With the win, the Rangers (21-16-4) improved to 5-1-1 in their last seven games and moved into sole possession of eighth place in the East, two points ahead of idle Winnipeg.
Thanks to the point they got for the overtime defeat, the Islanders (21-16-5) remained in seventh place in the East, a point ahead of the Rangers.
"I think tonight's game brings a different intensity because we're close together in points," Tortorella said.
The Islanders, who are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, had a three-game winning streak snapped and lost for just the third time in their last 11 games.
"It's tough to swallow the pill the way we played," Nabokov said. "We played well and both teams were battling. I think both teams deserve a point, that's for sure."
Should the Islanders and Rangers qualify for the playoffs as the final two teams in the eight-team Eastern Conference field, the odds would be poor that they'd face each other in the postseason for the first time since 1994.
But those who were able to obtain one of the hottest tickets in the metro area -- the game was sold out for days and the most remote seats at the Coliseum went for more than $200 apiece on resale sites as of Friday - as well as those who watched or listened to it would certainly be thrilled if the fates set up a New York-New York series.
"Driving to the game, there was thousands of people in the parking lot getting ready to go for tonight's game," Girardi said. "Kind of got us fired up. It's awfully fun to come to this building. Got a lot of fans here and their fans were really loud. There's definitely a lot of energy in the building that both teams fed off of."
The two teams exchanged serious scoring chances throughout the first and second period but were stymied by the goalies as well as the posts. Derek Stepan nearly put the Rangers ahead about six minutes into the second when his shot clanged off the left post, but a replay showed that it didn't cross the red line.
The defenses remained magnificent in the third, when the two teams combined for just nine shots on goal. Lundqvist made the biggest save when he deflected a John Tavares wrister with under 13 minutes to play.
The two teams hadn't played with both of their playoff hopes at stake since April 2, 1993, when the Islanders beat the Rangers 3-2 in overtime at Nassau Coliseum. That win helped fuel a 6-4-1 finish for the Islanders, who advanced all the way to the conference finals, while serving as the fourth loss in a season-ending 1-11 spiral for the Rangers, who finished in last place in the Patrick Division and missed the playoffs.
Beating the Rangers in April is standard for the Islanders, who entered Saturday 16-4-1 all-time against the Rangers in April.
But the Rangers had plenty of history on their side as well Saturday night: They won the second and third Stanley Cups in franchise history on April 13, 1933 and April 13, 1940. It took another 54 years for the Rangers to win their fourth Cup -- a span during which, as Islanders fans were all too happy to note, their Long Island brethren won four despite not beginning play until 1972.
NOTES: The Islanders scratched centers Anders Lee and Marty Reasoner, winger Eric Boulton and defenseman Radek Martinek while the Rangers scratched defensemen Matt Gilroy and Roman Hamrlik. ... Saturday also marked the 38th anniversary of the start of the Islanders-Penguins Campbell Conference quarterfinal series in which the Islanders became only the second team in the history of the four major sports to win a best-of-seven series after falling behind three games to none. ... Entering Saturday, the Rangers' only regular-season wins in April against the Islanders occurred on April 16, 1995 (3-2), April 15, 1998 (4-2 at Madison Square Garden), April 6, 2006 (3-1 at Madison Square Garden) and April 3, 2008 (3-0). The two teams also tied 2-2 on April 1, 2003 at Nassau Coliseum.