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NEW YORK – The New York Islanders are playing their best hockey of the season, and they're doing it against some of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Andrew Ladd scored in the second period and Jaroslav Halak stopped 36 shots to lead the Islanders to a 4-2 victory over the crosstown-rival Rangers on Tuesday night. John Tavares, Jason Chimera and Scott Mayfield also scored at Barclays Center to help the last-place Islanders improve to 4-0-1 in their last five games.
"We're playing a lot better hockey and we know we can still be a lot better so I think that's really the mindset," Tavares said. "Lot of games here before Christmas. ... We know we can still do a lot of good things 'til then. We're just starting the second quarter of the season."
The Islanders' last three wins have come against defending champion Pittsburgh and the Rangers — tied atop the Metropolitan Division — and Washington, which sits in one of the conference's wild-card spots.
"No secret if you want to make the playoffs, be a good team, you gotta beat some of the top teams in the league and certainly being able to do that has been big for us," Tavares said. "Even though there still needs to be a lot of improvement, I think we all recognize there's some good building blocks going."
Jimmy Vesey and Marc Staal scored for the Metropolitan Division-leading Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist finished with 28 saves. The Rangers have alternated wins and losses in regulation in their last eight games.
"I think it's important for us not to look for any excuses and try to be there every night as good as we can," said Lundqvist, who fell to 1-6-1 in his last eight against the Islanders. "Just have to dig a little deeper to get there."
The Rangers went 0 for 6 on the power play, including a 6-on-3 advantage with Lundqvist pulled over the final 32 seconds.
"You gotta score those timely goals and we didn't do it tonight," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We had the looks. I thought we battled hard. We tried to come back but their goalie without a doubt was the best player on the ice tonight and we didn't finish on our opportunities."
After the Islanders took a 2-0 lead in the first period, the Rangers twice pulled within one but couldn't tie it before falling behind by two again.
Vesey knocked in the rebound of a shot by Rick Nash for the rookie's ninth just 56 seconds into the second to cut the deficit in half.
The Islanders restored their two-goal lead 1:22 later when Shane Prince drove the net and had the puck poked away by Lundqvist. It went right to Ladd, who fired it in for his third.
Staal pulled the Rangers to 3-2 when he took a pass from J.T. Miller on a 4-on-2 rush and fired it by Halak from the right faceoff dot for his third at 8:54. The assist gave Miller a team-high 20 points on the season.
Tavares restored the Islanders' two-goal lead off a pass from Josh Bailey from the top of the right faceoff circle on the power play for his seventh with 8:47 left in the third.
"It's always important to win games," Halak said. "Beating the division rivals, it's always huge for us, it's always a four-point game. Coming out with two points against the Rangers is always a fun game to play."
The Islanders were outshot 16-9 in the first period but took a 2-0 lead into the intermission.
Mayfield got his first of the season in his third game as he took a pass from Cal Clutterbuck and fired a slap shot from near the boards outside the right faceoff circle past a screened Lundqvist at 7:03.
The Rangers' Matt Puempel was down on the ice for several minutes and left due to a concussion after taking a high stick from the Islanders' Brock Nelson, who was whistled for a double-minor. The Rangers controlled the play for most of the four-minute power-play, firing eight shots at Halak, who stopped them all.
Just as the penalty was expiring, Chimera brought the puck up the ice, waited for Nelson to join the play out of the box and sent the puck to him at the right side. Nelson skated up and fired a shot that bounced around in front, and Chimera knocked it in with 2:36 left for his fourth of the season and third in four games.
NOTES: The Rangers were without F Michael Grabner, the team-leader with 13 goals, while the former Islander was back in Austria for his grandmother's funeral. ... The Islanders improved to 8-1-2 when scoring at least three goals, 7-0-1 when leading after two periods, and 7-1-3 when scoring first. ... D Mayfield was called up from Bridgeport of the AHL to take the place of Johnny Boychuk, who was scratched due to flu-like symptoms. ... The Islanders had their second sellout of the season, and first since the opener against Anaheim on Oct. 16.
Rangers: At Winnipeg on Thursday night in the middle game of a three-game road swing.
Islanders: Host St. Louis on Thursday night in the finale of a three-game homestand.
Follow Vin Cherwoo at www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP.