Chants of “Igor! Igor! Igor!” resounded through the Garden midway through the second period of this win-or-else Game 3 of the second round.
Nino Niederreiter had just scored a goal.
Had scored a relatively soft goal for Carolina that fluttered through on the short side that cut the Rangers’ lead to 2-1, that is.
Yet the salute to the goaltender — who had been the Rangers’ MVP throughout the season and whose work early in this one had allowed his team to gain its equilibrium in the series — filled the round building as if he’d just made a breakaway save ten Tony DeAngelo.
“I’d like to thank the fans for the energy they provided,” Igor Shesterkin said through a translator. “They supported me even though I kind of let them down in that one spot, but the energy at MSG is always great, they’re always charged up and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
When the mutual admiration society meets at the Garden on Tuesday for Game 4, the Rangers will seek to square this round at 2-all in the wake of Sunday’s 3-1 victory in which Shesterkin put his stamp on the series and the Blueshirts’ marquee forwards also made an impression after being marked absent for the opening two matches in Carolina.
The Blueshirts approached this with a more attack-oriented approach that melded with head coach Gerard Gallant’s decision to scramble his top three forward units. In breaking up the Kid Line, Gallant had the inspired idea to shift Filip Chytil out of the middle to right wing with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
That move jump-started the line, which was responsible for Kreider’s goal before the Blueshirts reverted to their default top nine for the third period. The moves (plural) ignited the team that had scored a total of one goal in the opening two games and had entered Game 3 with a scoreless streak of 116:05.
But in opening it up while generating a rush game off effective breakouts, speed through the neutral zone and a down-low presence, the Rangers also allowed more chances than they had in Carolina. Hence, more work for Shesterkin. That’s a trade-off the Blueshirts should be willing to make every time.
“It’s something we’ve talked about a lot, about how much confidence he instills in us especially when he’s making hard saves look easy,” said Kreider, who put one in at a sharp angle for the 2-0 lead at 5:55 , 2:23 before Niederreiter scored. “With that being said, we can’t take our foot off the gas, we still have to forecheck to try and make it easier on Igor and the defense.”
The Rangers did go into too much of a shell in the third period, but Shesterkin earned his accolades in the first and second periods while facing 35 shots. The first calls of “Igor!” came within the first two minutes of the match following a startling stop on a Niederreiter point-blank deflection on the power play.
The goaltender made a spectacular sliding, tumbling stop on Jesperi Kotkaniemi all alone with seven minutes to go in the first, the Blueshirts up 1-0 following Zibanejad’s power-play goal at 11:54. There was a giant save on Max Domi early in the second. As the ‘Canes were firing pucks from all over, Shesterkin was eating them up.
“It’s exactly what we expect from him,” Gallant said of his Hart and Vezina finalist whose 43 saves improved his record to 7-1 on the year in games where he faced 40 or more shots. “We don’t want to rely on him that much, though.”
I have always found it counterintuitive that teams with stellar goaltending don’t play more of a risk-reward game, the way the ’80s Oilers did in front of Grant Fuhr. When you have a goaltender of that caliber, it seems the risk would be in playing too conservatively. Obviously Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns never felt that way in New Jersey.
The Rangers need to get into open ice. Zibanejad and Kreider need that for their confidence. So does Artemi Panarin, who was more creatively engaged in this one than he’d been in Carolina when he seemed to overthink every move. The more the team’s marquee guys generate five-on-five, the more it helps their power-play unit.
The more work Shesterkin gets, the more confidence he accrues and the less it can be shaken even by a bad goal such as the one in this second period. The Rangers had not held a two-goal lead in the second period since Game 2 against Pittsburgh. After finally gaining one, it lasted for only 2:33.
Not to worry.
“You get a little disappointed for a second and you say a few mean words,” Shesterkin said. “Then you forget about it.”