After facing a confederation of second- and third-string goaltenders in their seven-game victories over the Penguins and Hurricanes, the Rangers faced a No. 1 goaltender Wednesday in the opener of the conference finals at the Garden.
And that wasn’t just a No. 1 goaltender, it was the No. 1 goaltender in the NHL, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning.
Guess what? The Rangers barely seemed to notice, firing away at the reigning Conn Smythe winner, and beating him six times on 34 shots in this 6-2 Game 1 victory that gave the Blueshirts their first series lead of the tournament.
Yes, it is true. The Blueshirts are in an every-other-day mode while the Lightning and their netminder had been off since completing their sweep of the Panthers on May 23… a four-game sweep in which the Puddy Tats scored a sum of three goals.
It took the Blueshirts, who scored a combined 11 goals against Carolina to take Games 6 and 7 after scoring a sum of nine goals in the first five games of the second round, 35:43 to surpass Florida’s total.
“I told them to open it up,” head coach Gerard Gallant joked. “No, I think if you compete hard defensively, you get opportunities like we did tonight, two-on-ones, power-play goals.”
This truly was about as unexpected as it gets. Not that the Rangers won. That should be no surprise at this point. It was, however, a shocker to see Vasilevskiy look like just about any other goaltender.
Check this out. While Igor Shesterkin had been receiving acclaim for his 7-3 record, .939 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average starting with Game 5 of the first round, Vasilevskiy had gone 42-17 with a .932 save percentage and 1.96 GAA starting with Tampa Bay’s first of two Cup championships in 2020.
“Obviously it’s good for your confidence to score some goals,” said Mika Zibanejad, who set up Chris Kreider for the game-opening goal just 1:11 into the match before adding the final goal on a power play early in the third period. “But this was one game, there will be another one on Friday and we need to take the positives from this and work on things we can improve.”
The Rangers were somewhat fortunate to get through the first period tied 1-1 after doing way too much stick-checking through the first 20 minutes. But they got to their game in the second period, owning the walls while winning a substantial number of one-on-ones and seizing the advantage in offensive-zone possession time.
Indeed, the Rangers were able to make two full line changes while in control of the puck before Filip Chytil’s second goal of the night increased the lead to 4-2 late in the second period.
Tampa Bay had little answer for either the Blueshirts’ marquee forwards or the Kid Line. But maybe that’s redundant. For the Alexis Lafreniere-Chytil-Kaapo Kakko unit was magnetic once again, with Chytil increasing his total to seven goals in 15 playoff games.
During 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 impacted by their nine-day layoff. But that’s all part of it. Tampa Bay sure didn’t feel the need to apologize after beating the Islanders 8-2 in Game 1 of the 2020 bubble semifinals in Edmonton after that New York team was forced to fly cross-country from Toronto just a day before the match. The Islanders clawed and clawed, but could never catch up before losing in six games.
The anticipated goaltending duel between Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin never quite materialized. Vasilevskiy did not get much support, but he also yielded a few goals on first shots with no screen. When Frank Vatrano sent a 40-footer by him from the top of the circles to break a 1-1 tie at 7:50 of the second, that represented the kind of goal that might have gotten Louis Domingue or Antti Raanta pulled.
Shesterkin, though, held up his end of the bargain in a 37-save effort in which he faced 17 shots in the third period. He was spry around the net and made a habit of gobbling up loose pucks around the crease. He made a pair of big-time stops on Nikita Kucherov while the game was tight.
The audience noted.
Chants of “Igor’s better! Igor’s better! ” filled the Garden.
It will take three more of these for the Blueshirts to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Keep in mind that the Lightning have not lost two straight playoff games since being swept out of the 2019 first round by Columbus. Keep in mind that they won’t be rusty for Game 2 on Friday night.
The Rangers earned this one. No excuses. They scored six times against Vasilevskiy.