After facing a confederation of second- and third-string goaltenders in their seven-game wins over the Penguins and Hurricanes, the Rangers faced a No. 1 goaltender on Wednesday in Game 1 of the Conference Finals at the Garden.
And it wasn’t just a No. 1 goaltender, it was the NHL’s No. 1 goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning.
Guess what? Rangers seemed to barely notice, shooting defending winner Conn Smythe and beating him six times on 34 shots in that 6-2 Game 1 win that gave the Blueshirts their first series lead of the tournament.
Yes, it’s true. The Blueshirts are in bi-day mode while the Lightning and their goaltender have been out 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 11 combined goals against Carolina to win Games 6 and 7 after scoring nine goals in the first five games of the second round, 35:43 to top Florida’s total.
“I told them to open up,” joked head coach Gerard Gallant. “No, I think if you compete hard defensively, you get opportunities like we did tonight, two-on-one, power-play goals.”
It really was as unexpected as it gets. Not that the Rangers won. That shouldn’t be a surprise at this point. It was, however, a shock to see Vasilevskiy look like any other goalkeeper.
Look at this. While Igor Shesterkin was acclaimed for his 7-3 record, .939 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average from Game 5 of the first round, Vasilevskiy went 42-17 with a .932 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average starting in Tampa Bay’s first of two Cup championships in 2020.
“Obviously it’s good for your confidence to score goals,” said Mika Zibanejad, who set up Chris Kreider for the opener just 1:11 from the start of the game before adding the final goal on a power play at the start of the third period. “But it was a game, there will be another one on Friday and we have to take the positive from it and work on things that we can improve.”
Rangers were somewhat lucky to go through the first period tied at 1-1 after doing way too much stick control in the first 20 minutes. But they got to their game in the second period, owning the walls while winning a significant number of one-on-ones and seizing the advantage in possession time from the offensive zone.
Indeed, the Rangers were able to make two complete line changes while in control of the puck before Filip Chytil’s second goal of the night extended the lead to 4-2 late in the second period.
Tampa Bay had little answer for marquee forwards the Blueshirts or the Kid Line. But maybe it’s redundant. For the Alexis Lafrenière-Chytil-Kaapo unit, Kakko was once again magnetic, Chytil taking his tally to seven goals in 15 playoff games.
During the regular season, he scored eight goals in 67 games.
You say you need a hero?
Rangers seem to offer one every night.
Clearly, the Lightning have been impacted by his 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 through the country from Toronto just a day before the game. The Islanders scratched and scratched, 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 receive much support, but he also conceded a few goals on the first shots without a screen. When Frank Vatrano sent a 40-footer through him from the top of the circles to break a 1-1 tie at 7:50 of the second, it represented the kind of goal that could have had Louis Domingue or Antti Raanta retired.
Shesterkin, however, held his end of the bargain in a 37-save effort in which he faced 17 shots in the third period. He was lively around the net and made a habit of swallowing loose pucks around the crease. He made a pair of important saves on Nikita Kucherov as the game got tight.
The audience took note.
Chants of “Igor is better! Igor is better! filled the Garden.
It will take three more for the Blueshirts to qualify for the Stanley Cup Final. Keep in mind that the Lightning haven’t lost two straight playoff games since being swept out of the 2019 first round by Columbus. Keep in mind they won’t be rusty for Game 2 on Friday night.
Rangers deserved this one. No excuses. They scored six times against Vasilevskiy.