UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Dan Girardi scored with 1:41 left in overtime to break a scoreless tie Saturday night and lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 win over the New York Islanders in front of an electrified sellout bipartisan crowd of 16,170 at Nassau Coliseum.
Girardi's wrister from the right side beat Evgeni Nabokov and unleashed a wild celebration by the Rangers behind the Islanders' goal.
The biggest regular-season game between the longtime rivals in two decades more than lived up to its advance billing and whetted fans' appetites for a potential, if long-shot, meeting in the playoffs.
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. 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.
Girardi's goal provided the only offense on an evening that grew increasingly heated and desperate as Nabokov and Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist outdid one another and traded spectacular saves.
Nabokov (19 saves) allowed two goals or fewer for the eighth time in his last nine starts. Lundqvist (29 saves), meanwhile, allowed two goals or fewer for the seventh time in his last nine starts.
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 -- certainly got their money's worth.
The pre-game buzz and atmosphere was more like a football game or rock concert. Fans tailgated in the parking lots hours before the 7 PM start time while those in need of a ticket hovered near the entrance to the parking lot on Hempstead Turnpike holding signs on which their requests were scrawled.
And with the lights partially dimmed in the minutes before the teams took the ice, the moments prior to faceoff felt more like the anticipatory moments before a concert. Coincidentally or not, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who -- which recently performed at the Coliseum -- blared as the scoreboard flashed the words "Get ready to rock this old barn."
Once the game began, dueling chants of "Let's go Islanders!" and "Let's go Rangers!" quickly turned into an unintelligible din of noise. The adrenaline carried over to the ice during a feisty first period in which the Islanders outshot the Rangers 10-8.
With fewer than eight minutes left in the period, the Islanders' Colin McDonald and the Rangers' Aaron Asham began pushing and shoving one another along the boards to the left of the Rangers' net. They were joined immediately by everyone else on the ice except Nabokov and Lundqvist.
As the period ended, the Islanders' Lubomir Visnovsky and the Rangers' Ryan Callahan had to be pried apart.
The two teams exchanged serious scoring chances throughout the 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.
Eleven minutes later, Casey Cizikas had Lundqvist beat but his shot glanced off the right post and skittered away.
The two teams also combined to kill three power plays in the second (two by the Islanders, one by the Rangers).
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 fewer than 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.