Chants of “Igor! Igor! Igor!” echoed through the garden in the middle of the second period of this second round win-or-else game 3.
Nino Niederreiter had just scored a goal.
Had a relatively soft goal for Carolina that flapped through on the short side, cutting the Rangers lead to 2-1.
But the salute to the goaltender – who had been Rangers’ MVP all season and whose work earlier this season had allowed his team to find their balance in the series – filled the circular building as if he’d just made a breakaway save on Tony DeAngelo.
“I want to thank the fans for the energy they provided,” Igor Shesterkin said through a translator. “They supported me even though I let them down on that one point, but the energy at MSG is always great, they’re always charged and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
When the company of mutual admirers meets at the Garden on Tuesday for Game 4, Rangers will be looking to end this round after Sunday’s 3-1 win that saw Shesterkin make his mark on the series and the Blueshirts’ marquee with 2: 2 to finish The forwards also made an impression after being marked absent in the first two games in Carolina.
The Blueshirts approached that with a more attacking approach, which merged with head coach Gerard Gallant’s decision to mix up his top three forward units. When disbanding Kid Line, Gallant had the brilliant idea of moving Filip Chytil from middle to right wing with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
That move ignited the line responsible for Kreider’s goal before the Blueshirts returned to their standard top-9 for the third period. The moves (plural) ignited the team, who had scored a goal overall in their first two games and entered Game 3 with a 116-05 goalless streak.
But by opening it up while still creating a fast game through effective breakouts, speed through the neutral zone, and low presence, the Rangers also allowed more chances than they had in Carolina. So more work for Shesterkin. That’s a compromise the Blueshirts should be ready to make every time.
“We’ve talked a lot about how much confidence he instills in us, especially when he makes hard saves look easy,” said Kreider, who scored at 5:55 from a tight angle to give the 2-0 lead, 2:23 before Niederreiter met. “Even so, we can’t take our foot off the gas, we still have to check to make it easier for Igor and the defense.”
The Rangers got too caught up in a shell in the third period, but Shesterkin earned his honors with 35 shots in the first and second periods. The first shouts of “Igor!” came within the first two minutes of the game after a stunning stop on a deflection from Niederreiter at close range on the power play.
The keeper singlehandedly stopped Jesperi Kotkaniemi with seven minutes from time in the first round with a spectacular slide and fall stop, the Blue Shirts taking a 1-0 lead after Zibanejad’s power-play goal at 11:54. At the beginning of the second game there was a huge save against Max Domi. As the ‘Canes fired pucks everywhere, Shesterkin ate them up.
“That’s exactly what we’re expecting from him,” Gallant said of his Hart and Vezina finalist, whose 43 saves improved his record in games in which he hit 40 or more shots to 7-1. “But we don’t want to rely on him that much.”
I’ve always found it counterintuitive that teams with excellent goalkeeping don’t play more of a risk-reward game like the Oilers did before Grant Fuhr in the ’80s. Apparently, when you have a goalkeeper of this caliber, the risk is playing too conservatively. Apparently, Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns never felt this way in New Jersey.
The Rangers have to go into the open ice. Zibanejad and Kreider need that for their confidence. The same goes for Artemi Panarin, who on this occasion was more creative than he was in Carolina, when he seemed to think over every step. The more the five-on-five team marquee boys generate, the more it helps their powerplay unit.
The more work Shesterkin gets, the more confidence he gains, and the less likely he is to be shaken by a poor goal like that second half. The Rangers hadn’t had a two-goal lead in the second third since Game 2 against Pittsburgh. After finally winning one, it only took 2:33.
Do not worry.
“You’re a little disappointed for a second and say some mean words,” Shesterkin said. “Then you forget it.”