After facing a confederation of second- and third-row goaltenders in seven games against the Penguins and the Hurricanes, the Rangers faced a No. 1 goaltender in the opener of the conference finals at the Garden on Wednesday.
And that wasn’t just a #1 goaltender, it was the #1 goaltender in the NHL, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning.
Guess what? The Rangers barely seemed to notice, firing at the reigning Conn Smythe winner and beating him six times with 34 shots in that 6-2 Game 1 win that gave the Blueshirts their first series lead of the tournament.
Yes that is true. The Blueshirts are in a two-day stalemate while the Lightning and their goaltender have been absent since their win against the Panthers on May 23… a four-game sweep in which the Puddy Tats scored three goals overall.
The Blueshirts, who scored a total of 11 goals against Carolina to win Games 6 and 7 after totaling nine goals in their first five games of Round Two, 35-43 to surpass Florida’s total.
“I told them to open it,” joked head coach Gerard Gallant. “No, I think if you play hard defensively you get chances like we did tonight, two-on-one power play goals.”
This was really as unexpected as it gets. Not that Rangers won. That shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point. However, it was a shock to see Vasilevskiy looking like any other goalkeeper.
Check this out. While Igor Shesterkin was celebrated for his 7-3 record, .939 save and 2.09 goals against average as of Game 5 of Round 1, Vasilevskiy had gone 42-17 with a .932 save and 1.96 GAA at Tampa Bays first of two cup championships in 2020.
“Of course it’s good for confidence to score a few goals,” said Mika Zibanejad, who set up Chris Kreider’s first goal after just 1:11 before scoring the final goal on a power play early in the third period . “But that was one game, there will be another on Friday and we have to take the positive from it and work on things that we can improve.”
Rangers were slightly lucky to end the first half in a 1-1 draw after stick-checking far too much in the first 20 minutes. But they came to their game in the second half, dominating the walls, winning a significant number of one-on-ones and taking advantage in the offensive zone’s possession time.
In fact, Rangers were able to make two full line changes while in control of the puck before Filip Chytil’s second goal of the evening increased the lead to 4-2 late in the second period.
Tampa Bay didn’t have an answer for either the Blueshirts forwards or the Kid Line. But maybe that’s superfluous. For the Alexis Lafreniere-Chytil-Kaapo unit, Kakko was once again magnetic, with Chytil taking his total to seven goals in 15 playoff games.
In the regular season, he scored eight goals in 67 games.
You say you need a hero?
The Rangers seem to come up with one every night.
Obviously, the Lightning were affected by their nine-day layoff. But that’s all part of it. Tampa Bay certainly didn’t feel the need to apologize after beating the Islanders 8-2 in Game 1 of the 2020 Bubble Semifinals in Edmonton after the New York team was forced to move from Toronto just a day before the game to fly across country. The Islanders clawed and clawed but could never catch up before losing in six games.
The expected goalkeeper duel between Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin never quite materialized. Vasilevskiy didn’t get much support, but he also scored some goals on off-screen initial shots. When Frank Vatrano sent a 40-footer from him from the top of the circles to break a 1-1 tie at 7:50 of the second, it was the kind of goal Louis Domingue or Antti Raanta could have pulled.
However, Shesterkin kept his end of the bargain in a 37 save effort in which he faced 17 shots in the third period. He was sprightly around the net and made a habit of gobbling loose pucks around the crease. He made two big stops against Nikita Kucherov while the game was tight.
The audience noticed.
Chants of “Igor is better! Igor is better!” filled the garden.
Three more of these are needed for the Blueshirts to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Keep in mind that the Lightning haven’t lost two straight playoff games since they were swept out of the first round by Columbus in 2019. Keep in mind they won’t be rusty for Game 2 on Friday night.
The Rangers deserve it. No excuses. They scored six times against Vasilevskiy.